Three weeks after Lagniappe published a story questioning why political newspaper columnist Steve Flowers was being paid $96,000 a year by the University of Alabama System Office, he has resigned.
The resignation marks the end of a peculiar arrangement with the Chancellor Finis St. John’s office in which it became apparent Flowers was being handsomely paid for radio and television appearances he wasn’t making and leading the secretive formation of a political history center the System Office has called “potential.”
For the past two weeks, the System Office has refused to answer questions about Flowers’ employment, as well as all other inquiries. But Tuesday evening, Director of System Communications Lynn Cole broke the silence to confirm Flowers’ resignation in response to questions earlier in the day about whether he had ended his employment.
“Steve Flowers resigned from The University of Alabama System on May 10, 2021. We thank Steve for his contributions; we all benefited from his extensive experience in communications and his unparalleled wisdom about political history. We look forward to continuing to build on the projects for which Steve helped lay the foundation,” Cole wrote.
Cole did not respond when asked if Flowers offered a reason for his departure or if the System had an idea as to who might replace him.
The System Office has expressed satisfaction with Flowers’ work and insisted he has been “consistently on-air” performing his broadcast duties, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The one example the System provided as proof of his work was an episode of a series of short political interviews he appears to have stopped doing more than two years ago. When asked specifically when the piece was produced, Cole did not respond.
Flowers’ own comments about what he was being paid to do were vague and included writing a biography of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby that the senator’s office has denied is being produced, and talk of radio and TV appearances he wasn’t making. He also claimed Shelby instructed St. John to hire him to write the biography and lead the political history center. Both claims were denied by the senator’s office, and the System also said Shelby did not pressure anyone to hire Flowers.
But questions about who was behind Flowers’ pay making a 140 percent jump in 2017 to more than $69,000 a year, and whether his position was ever legally advertised when he moved to the System Office in 2019 and was bumped up to $96,000 have not been specifically answered. Rather, his elevation was couched as an employee receiving more pay for increased duties rather than taking an entirely new job.
Who made those decisions is also something the System Office hasn’t been willing to explain. Several people familiar with the situation have said Vice President for External Affairs Clay Ryan was involved in the process, but the System has also refused to answer who signed his hiring papers.
But there is evidence someone in the System Office was looking out for Flowers even before his pay officially started coming from their budget. Last week, Lagniappe contacted former UA Vice President for Strategic Communications Linda Bonnin, who 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. 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.
Flowers did not respond to attempts to ask him about the resignation.
Confusion or collusion?
Last month, Lagniappe was contacted about Flowers’ employment with the System Office, and sources alleged the political columnist who sends his weekly column out to 60 newspapers around the state wasn’t actually doing anything for the System, but was instead on payroll simply to write flattering things about St. John, Ryan and the University System in his column.
He wrote a glowing column about St. John in March of last year and in another column praised Ryan as one of the state’s top leaders under the age of 45.
Flowers claims hundreds of thousands of readers each week and that his column runs in more than 60 newspapers across the state. He also claimed he’s paid $5,000 for speaking appearances and paid for radio and TV appearances as well, something that isn’t typical for media members in Alabama. All of those factors, he said, were calculated when the System Office decided to pay him a nearly six-figure salary.
Several editors and publishers contacted by Lagniappe said they pay nothing for Flowers’ column, raising the question of whether he actually has direct income from any newspapers that run them. Lagniappe also discovered Flowers currently produces weekly radio and television pieces for Troy University’s broadcast stations free of charge, begging the question of why the UA System Office would pay him so much to do the same, or keep paying him when he hasn’t produced any in more than two years.
Critics inside the university system, as well as former employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the Flowers situation is not just a one-off issue, but is indicative of larger problems with the System Office management as a whole that has bled into the universities it manages. Some suggested there was an attempt to “hide” Flowers in the payroll system by not listing him in the directory or giving him an office, a phone number, access to the System Office building or any of the things that would be standard for a full-time employee.
Whether there has been a willful effort to portray Flowers’ employment as something it was not is hard to tell, but there was at least a degree of confusion among System Office employees as to his status when Lagniappe began looking into the matter. When a reporter first called the System Office to ask for Flowers prior to sending questions to administrators, the receptionist said Flowers didn’t work there. The following day, after administrators were aware of questions, a receptionist claimed Flowers was not in “his office” and offered to take a message. Days later, Cole admitted Flowers did not have an office.
Insiders said receptionists were told by administrators after Lagniappe’s first call to tell anyone else looking for Flowers that he wasn’t in his office and to take a message.
Other things are unclear about the way System Office employees are listed in payroll. Specifically, the System has refused to explain why Ryan, Cole and three other employees who appear in their directory are not listed as having their salaries paid from the System Office budget. The System has also not answered questions about the intermingling of budgets between their office and individual universities and whether that is permissible under System accounting practices.
Ryan’s salary, which is among the highest in the entire university system, is clearly being paid through the UAB Hospital System, which is a non-profit and does not have an open search tool like UA, UAH and UAB. His salary for 2016 – 2018 was listed on the UAB Hospital System 990 forms.
He was reported among a list of the hospital system’s officers as receiving $714,275 in base pay for 2018, 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 and the highest paid among those appearing on the System Office directory.
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.
Ryan’s current salary remains a mystery, as the System Office has refused disclosure requests, and it is still not clear what Cole and three others are paid or from which budget. Lagniappe has attempted to determine what is standard for the System Office in terms of paying employees from various budgets, even talking to former Chancellor Ray Hayes. Hayes declined to talk about it, saying it was inappropriate for him to discuss the matter.
University critics have also pointed to what they claim are similar efforts in other areas to obfuscate legal settlements with former employees. One settlement in particular, with a former employee in the Division of Advancement named Leslie Abernathy was mentioned by several sources as an example.
Abernathy received a settlement from UA earlier this year. Her attorney, Will Beckum, was unable to talk about specifics of the settlement due to a non-disclosure agreement, but said it was resolved in a way he thought was fair. Abernathy left the university’s employment in April.
However, she still received a full month’s salary for April, which was marked in the system as payroll on April 30. On April 9, though, she received a payment of $83,333 that was marked as “Service and Professional Fees” in the system. Beckum Law also received a payment that day of $41,666 that was also marked as “Service and Professional Fees.”
It is unclear why legal settlements are being listed as “Service and Professional Fees,” and the System Office has refused to explain. Abernathy’s is not the only settlement that carries two different designations, though.
Former Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Jamie Riley signed a separation agreement with the university on Sept. 4, 2019, the same day a Breitbart News article criticized his tweets expressing his belief that the United States flag exists as a symbol of systemic racism. According to published reports, Riley received $346,000 as a settlement agreement from the university.
Records show Riley received payments of $14,975 in October and November, $27,556 in December and $175,000 in January 2020, and all were listed as “Payroll.” Also in January, he received a payment of $127,450 listed as “Service and Professional Fees.”
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