A former University of Alabama vice president says she was approached by the university’s System Office in 2017 and encouraged to hire political columnist Steve Flowers to work in her division, but she declined to do so because what they envisioned him doing didn’t mesh with the division’s mission.
Flowers, who writes a weekly political column he makes available to more than 60 newspapers across Alabama, has been earning $96,000 a year allegedly working on a secretive “potential” center for Alabama political history in the UA System Office, although he has no office, keeps no standard hours and doesn’t appear to have been issued a university email. The System Office has refused to answer many questions about Flowers’ employment since Lagniappe began investigating it last month. They have also claimed part of his salary is based upon work he does with University of Alabama-owned radio and television stations even though he hasn’t performed that work in more than two years.
According to payroll records, Flowers started with UA in May 2015 making $28,000 a year. By 2017, his salary was raised 140 percent to $69,055 annually. System Office Spokesperson Lynn Cole said the massive increase in salary was due to Flowers receiving “supplemental responsibilities,” but Cole would not describe what those were.
When contacted by Lagniappe, former UA Vice President for Strategic Communications Linda Bonnin said the System Office came to her looking for a place to put Flowers in 2017.
“Someone from the UA System office introduced me to Steve Flowers in 2017, and asked that I create a position for him on the payroll of UA’s Division of Strategic Communications of which I served as vice president from 2015-2020. I chose not to do so because their vision for his role did not align with our division’s work. They were willing to fund the position, but I could not justify bringing him onto our team,” Bonnin wrote in a statement.
Bonnin, who came to UA from Louisiana State University in 2015, was the university’s first vice president for Strategic Communications and was known for creating the award-winning branding campaign “Where Legends Are Made,” which was named the number one university advertising campaign worldwide in 2019. She is currently senior vice president for Marketing and Strategic Communications at Abilene Christian University. Her recollection is that Flowers would be involved in radio and TV programs.
“I was told his role would be consulting with WVUA-TV and hosting a program for Alabama Public Radio, neither of which were part of our division’s oversight. It’s my understanding he was placed on the payroll of the College of Communications and Information Sciences where those media outlets reside organizationally. I was not approached about it again,” Bonnin wrote.
Her comments suggest the office run by the University System’s chancellor was taking a keen interest in Flowers even two years before his pay started coming from the System Office and was raised another 38 percent to $96,000, along with benefits and insurance. Ray Hayes was chancellor when Flowers was hired at UA and when Bonnin says she was asked to hire him. Finis St. John took over as interim chancellor in 2018.
Flowers has claimed U.S. Senator Richard Shelby told St. John to hire him so he could help create an Alabama political history center that would be named after the senator, and write Shelby’s biography. Shelby’s office has denied asking St. John to hire Flowers and has also said there have been only very preliminary talks about a political history center and that Flowers is not working on a biography.
Bonnin’s recollection implicates the System Office getting involved directly with employee hiring at UA, something that would appear to run counter to its purpose. As stated on its website, the System Office oversees big picture functions such as the financial health of the universities it manages, legal affairs and audits. Employee hiring at the university level is supposed to be conducted by administrators there.
Bonnin would not say who came to her about hiring Flowers, but multiple university sources speaking on condition of anonymity have said Senior Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Clay Ryan was instrumental in making sure the political columnist was taken care of financially. Cole has refused to say who signed Flowers’ paperwork to join the System Office or answer the specific question about whether Ryan had anything to do with his large raises in 2017 and 2019. Flowers’ pay began coming from the System Office just a couple of months after St. John moved from interim chancellor to chancellor in 2019. Ryan joined the System in October 2015, about four months after Flowers joined UA as a $28,000-a-year employee. Prior to that, Ryan’s resume included working with Gov. Robert Bentley’s office.
Since Lagniappe began looking into Flowers’ employment nearly a month ago, the System Office has been unable to produce any of his work product from the past two years, even as they insist he is still on campus-run radio and TV stations. Officials at Alabama Public Radio said he hasn’t done anything for them in over two years and his regular appearances on WVUA-TV also stopped around that time. Ironically, Flowers currently produces weekly radio and TV segments for Troy University for free. Troy is not part of the UA System.
Allowing Flowers to work as a full-time employee who keeps no office hours could possibly violate university policy regarding having separate rules for various employees.
“Regular attendance and punctuality are expected of all employees. In general, employees needing to be absent or tardy to work for any reason are responsible for notifying their supervisor as soon as possible upon determining they will be absent from work. Employees should follow departmental guidelines in regard to reporting work absences. Employees who are absent from work three or more workdays without notification to their supervisor may be considered to have voluntarily resigned their position,” the UA Attendance Policy states. “Departments have the authority to define attendance expectations for their employees. Departments should keep records to ensure that the same attendance standard is applied to every employee in the department. Employees who do not meet the attendance expectations may be subject to the Employee Counseling and Progressive Discipline Policy.”
More payroll questions
Some inside the university have alleged that Flowers was paid nearly six figures to do nothing more than provide good publicity in his weekly columns for the school and its leadership. While his columns aren’t known for being particularly tough on Alabama’s politicians, one he wrote last March was especially effusive about his employer, St. John. It lauded his intellect, leadership skills and even heaped praise on the Board of Trustees for being wise enough to hire him. He’s also praised Ryan as one of the state’s best leaders under 45. In neither case did Flowers let his readers know he is employed by the System.
Unless one is specifically looking for Flowers’ name in the UA open records system, there are no other indications he is currently employed, giving rise to questions of whether records are being manipulated to essentially hide him. The System Office has denied that, but a comparison of their website listing of current employees with payroll records revealed more discrepancies the System Office has refused to explain.
Ryan, for instance, one of the highest paid employees in the entire University of Alabama System, is not listed on the System Office payroll. Neither are Cole, Internal Auditor Bret Malone, University Counsel Shay Reynolds and Director for External Affairs Charlie Taylor.
The System has refused to say why those employees are paid from another budget, or identify where their salaries are budgeted. The University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital System, as a non-profit entity, doesn’t offer a public method for viewing employee salaries. Bob Shepard, public relations manager with UAB, said he was not allowed to reveal whether Ryan, Cole and the others are paid from the hospital system budget and said only the System Office can release that information.
However, while Ryan’s current salary remains a mystery, the hospital system’s 2018 non-profit 990 federal filing at least answered the question of where Ryan’s pay comes from. He was reported among a list of the hospital system’s officers as receiving $714,275 in base pay that year, along with other compensation amounting to $35,987, for a total of $750,262. He was the highest paid vice president in the hospital system.
In 2017, the hospital system reported his salary and other compensation as $670,578, meaning he received an increase of almost $80,000 — 12 percent — between his second and third year. In Ryan’s first full year, 2016, the hospital system paid him a total of $661,857, according to that 990.
Lagniappe has filed official requests for current payroll information with not only the System Office, but also the UA itself, but since Cole wrote more than a week ago that they were through answering questions, no one has responded to either previously submitted or new questions, despite the University System being subject to Alabama’s Open Records Law.
Correction: Flowers wrote of Clay Ryan being one of the state’s leaders under 45, not 40.
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