Is Alabama’s best-known political columnist being paid $96,000 a year plus benefits by the University of Alabama System to help start a political history center and write a biography of Senator Richard Shelby, or is his salary simply ensuring he writes flattering things about the System’s chancellor and other officials in his weekly column run in newspapers throughout Alabama, as some have alleged?
If you ask political columnist Steve Flowers, he’s heading up a secretive project for the System and writing a book about Shelby. But, if you ask Shelby, Flowers isn’t working on a biography at all and there have only been “brief conversations” about a political history center. Even the System calls the project “potential.” And depending upon what day you call the System Office, even the receptionists appear unsure of whether Flowers works there.
The confusion about what Steve Flowers is doing for nearly $100,000 a year was not much more definitively answered by the System itself, which took more than 24 hours to get a statement together vaguely endorsing his version of events. Even six days later, the System has been unable to produce any documentation verifying planning for a political center, a job description for Flowers or to show where the publicly funded position was publicly advertised.
Flowers, whose weekly column runs in more than 60 Alabama newspapers according to his website, has been on the University of Alabama or University of Alabama System payroll since at least 2015 according to payroll records available at open.ua.edu, but his explanation for what exactly he does is not supported by interviews and research conducted by Lagniappe.
Looking into allegations Flowers was essentially being paid to write flattering things about the university, some of its employees and Chancellor Finis St. John in his weekly column, Lagniappe found he has been paid roughly $350,000 over the past six years, with his salary increasing 140 percent in 2017 and then taking another big jump in 2019 when he officially moved to the University of Alabama System. The System is the administrative office that oversees University of Alabama campuses in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Birmingham. But a payroll search is the only evidence of Flowers’ employment, as he doesn’t appear in any directory.
When Lagniappe began investigating Flowers’ employment, what we found was confusion among System employees about whether he worked there or not and a number of claims made by Flowers that were not supported or were directly contradicted by subsequent investigation.
Asked to explain what he does for the System, Flowers claimed he is being paid to lay the groundwork for an Alabama Center for Political History, which the nearly 70-year-old said he would either run or handle its public relations once it becomes a reality. Flowers said the center is something of a secret and hasn’t been announced in any way because there is a distinct likelihood it would be named in honor of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby.
“We’ve tried to keep it quiet because it might be named after Shelby, and he’s gotten a little gun shy because of all the buildings named after him,” Flowers said.
Shelby, Flowers claimed, actually was the one who instructed St. John to hire him for the job because the senator has chosen Flowers to write his biography, a circumstance that would violate state law, as public officials are not permitted to get involved in university hirings. Flowers said the biography will be published through the University of Alabama Press and will be owned by the university, and he would receive no royalties from it.
“Shelby and I are close. He wanted me to be the one to write it,” he said.
Asked if the biography is already underway, Flowers replied enthusiastically, “Lord yes! We talk every week!”
But, according to Shelby’s office, Flowers’ claims are far from accurate. A spokesperson said a political history center had been briefly discussed, but not concretely and Shelby has not been involved in its concept or development. Discussion of a biography came primarily from Flowers and one is not currently underway. The spokesperson also said it has been some time since the two men have spoken. There was also a denial the senator had anything to do with Flowers’ hiring at the University System.
Attempting to clear up what Flowers’ duties are, Lagniappe sent messages to the System April 15 inquiring about his employment and received a statement two days later.
“Steve Flowers has been employed within the University of Alabama System for several years. Throughout his tenure, Steve has served in numerous roles, including radio host for Alabama Public Radio and political analyst for WVUA-TV,” the statement read. “Since formally joining the System Office, Steve’s duties expanded to guiding strategy and discussions surrounding a potential new initiative that would provide opportunities for scholarly research of Alabama’s political history. Given his decades of experience in the state’s political landscape, Steve has the proven experience and ability to help the UA System strategically tell its stories through its owned channels in various venues. Steve’s employment within the System has been a matter of public record throughout his tenure.”
However, while Flowers’ employment was certainly clear if one knew to look up his name in the System’s payment records, a great degree of confusion appears to exist at the System Office itself in regards to whether he works there or not, or even whether he has an office or not.
Prior to sending St. John questions about Flowers’ employment, Lagniappe called the University of Alabama System Office April 14 and asked to speak with Flowers. The receptionist said he didn’t work there.
“We don’t have anyone here by that name,” she said. “I know who he is, but he never comes in here and he doesn’t have an office here.”
The same question posed the following day, after the System was aware questions were being asked about Flowers’ employment, brought an entirely different answer.
“He’s not in his office. I can take a message and get it to him,” the receptionist said. Asked if he did, in fact, have an office in the building, she said, “I don’t know if he does or not. I know he’s not in this office right now.”
Pressed further about whether Flowers actually has an office in the building or not, the receptionist said, “I don’t know, sir. I really don’t know. I can’t tell you. I don’t know all the goings-on of the University System Office, but I can get a message to him, I know that.”
Late Sunday night — three days after questions were first asked about Flowers’ work for the System — Director of System Communications Lynn Cole confirmed he does not have an office in the System building.
“Steve Flowers does not have a dedicated office in Sid McDonald Hall. The UA System operates a multibillion-dollar enterprise and employs individuals across the state, a number of whom do not have offices at Sid McDonald Hall,” she wrote.
Still unanswered is whether Flowers has an office or phone number anywhere in the System or if he is required to keep any office hours at all.
The System’s website lists more than 90 employees along with their phone numbers and email addresses. Flowers’ name was not among them as of Monday afternoon.
An inquiry to the University of Alabama’s History Department asking if they have been consulted on the development of the Center for Political History didn’t ring any bells there.
“I’m familiar with Steve Flowers, but I’ve never heard of the Alabama Center for Political History. I emailed the political historian in my department, whose expertise is Southern political history. She’s never heard of it either. So far as I know, no one in the department has been approached about it or has heard of it,” History Department Chairman Joshua Rothman wrote in an email.
“A pretty high dollar”
A former state legislator, Flowers has built a reputation over the years as Alabama’s preeminent expert on state politics — at least in some circles. He’s not necessarily a household name in the southern part of the state where few newspapers run his column. But he has been a regular on TV and talk radio over the years.
Records show Flowers started employment with the University of Alabama March 2015 at a pay rate of $28,000 a year, and he received a $630 a year raise the following September. But in September 2017, records show his pay jumped to a rate of $69,059, a more than 140 percent increase. He received another raise in October 2018, moving his rate to $69,555. And then in June 2019, he received a 38 percent increase to $96,000 annually when he moved to the System Office’s payroll.
When asked how many hours a week he was working on his planning for the political history center, Flowers couldn’t offer anything specific, but said his work on Shelby’s biography was also taking time. Flowers also justified his salary by saying he is a highly paid writer and speaker who commands thousands for speeches and TV and radio appearances, and that metric was used to come up with his System salary.
“I get a pretty high dollar as the state’s leading columnist,” he explained. “I get $5,000 for a speaking engagement. If I make 20 appearances a year on radio or TV that would be the same amount I’m making.”
When asked who had paid him $5,000 to speak and where his last paid speech was, Flowers refused. “I’m not telling you that!” he said.
He also claimed appearances he makes on the University of Alabama’s WVUA television station and Alabama Public Radio (APR) alone are worth the $96,000, insurance and benefits he receives. When asked how often he makes such appearances, Flowers couldn’t offer a hard number, saying only that COVID-19 had caused some cutbacks there. Still, he feels his workload is sufficient.
“I do enough stuff for the System to justify my salary,” he said.
In Alabama, writers and reporters frequently appear on radio and television shows, but are seldom, if ever, paid anything, much less thousands of dollars. Asked why stations would pay him so much for such appearances and not others, Flowers said it was a matter of his success “as the most famous author in the state.”
While no one from WVUA returned inquiries about how often Flowers makes appearances or whether he had ever been paid for them, a search of the station’s website lists Jan. 23, 2020 as the last time he was on the station. Regular monthly or even twice-monthly appearances appear to have ended in April 2019, about two years ago and a couple of months before he received that 38 percent raise. His final appearances were also before the pandemic began.
Likewise, Flowers’ political commentaries on APR stopped in January 2019. Elizabeth Brock, executive director of the Center for Public Television & Radio, said Flowers had done a weekly political piece for APR that ran on Wednesdays. She said his contributions to APR ended “a couple of years ago,” and that he’d never been paid for them.
“We don’t pay any of our commentators,” she said.
She said his broadcasts were primarily about state political history, but that eventually ran its course.
“He was doing, initially, historical pieces for us but after a while it just ran out of steam,” Brock said.
Even whether Flowers is highly paid for his newspaper columns is also dubious as at least some papers aren’t paying him. Lagniappe was unable to contact all 60 papers Flowers counts as clients. When it was pointed out to Flowers that a few papers running his column are running it for free, he shrugged it off, saying “so what?”
After 17 years on the Alabama Board of Trustees, St. John was selected as interim chancellor in July 2018, roughly 10 months after Flowers was hired by the System. In April 2019, St. John was made chancellor.
“Chancellor St. John understands and knows the history and potential of our state in a very unique way. This, coupled with his brilliant intellect, makes him ideal. If anyone was ever born to lead the current University of Alabama System, it is Finis ‘Fess’ St. John IV,” Flowers wrote of his boss in March of last year in a column that ran in newspapers across the state.
The column was not only exuberant about St. John, but also highly complimentary of the “collective wisdom of this austere body” — the Board of Trustees — that selected him to run the state’s largest university system. The cloying piece also explained why it was much smarter to select St. John, who had spent 17 years as a trustee, versus going outside the system to hire “an academician from an Ivy League school.” But nowhere did Flowers tell his readers that he was writing about his employer.
“There’s no special arrangement with Fess St. John,” Flowers explained, defending his laudatory column. “No quid pro quo and no clandestine thing. Someone told you a story.”
In another column, he was highly complimentary of politicians from Cullman, where St. John grew up and where his family has had a number of members elected to the State Legislature. Flowers also wrote glowingly of Clay Ryan, the vice chancellor for governmental affairs and economic/workforce development for the System and one of St. John’s top lieutenants. He called Ryan “smart and savvy” and named him one of the state’s “leaders under 45 who affect the state’s political arena.” Flowers brushed off the journalist’s ethical responsibilities to let readers know about relationships between the writer and subject.
Overall, though, St. John and the university have not been frequent topics in Flowers’ columns. So if $96,000 a year is being spent to have love letters to St. John and other UA leaders published in Flowers’ column, he doesn’t appear to be performing that duty with any more frequency than he broadcasts, writes Shelby’s biography or works on the Alabama Center for Political History.
As of publication, the University of Alabama System Office still has not provided a job description for Flowers, an advertisement for the position or revealed who signed the Personnel Action Form that brought him on board in 2019.
Editor’s note: Corrections made April 23, 2021 to correct the time line of Flowers’ move from the University of Alabama’s payroll to the University of Alabama Systems Office payroll. He started with UA in 2015 and officially moved to the Systems Office in 2019, according to payroll records.
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