More than seven months and 18 stories after first writing about strange goings-on at the University of Alabama System Office, I’ve learned a lot about the people running the state’s flagship of higher education. And I’ve learned almost as much about media in the Yellowhammer State.
One thing that became quite clear the second I started reporting about Alabama’s famed political columnist, Steve Flowers, secretly being on the payroll of the UA System Office is that this group isn’t used to being asked tough questions by anyone. Asking if someone works for you isn’t a difficult question to answer, but UA Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John IV clearly has no game plan for handling even slightly uncomfortable situations. Obviously, he’s used to controlling his world down to the specs of dust floating across the room.
So they lied and tried to trick me and then attempted to just ignore the questions, even though it was obvious Flowers was getting paid handsomely to do nothing and didn’t even have an office, phone or email. The attitude St. John projected was essentially that wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on Flowers — not to mention getting him insurance and inclusion in the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) — was really not anyone’s business.
I’ll admit to being somewhat shocked by the System’s bush league approach to media relations. Telling a reporter “nothing to see here, just move on” is pretty much 101 in what NOT to do, but I quickly understood why they thought that approach might work — because it does with everyone else in the state.
Steve Flowers’ column has run in many newspapers across Alabama. He’s also been interviewed by most others when it comes to political matters. The fact he was secretly on the take from the University of Alabama smells like news to me. I even had one big-time columnist at one of the state’s largest media outlets write to say he was jealous he hadn’t broken the story. But I wonder if he ever would have since his publication never wrote a word about it. Nor have any others.
In fact, no other publication or TV station in the state has written or broadcast a word about the millions in wasted payments to “retired” administrators we discovered, or the attempt to use RSA payments to settle a harassment suit, or even the outlandish perks heaped upon members of the UA Board of Trustees by St. John’s office — including spending $4.3 million on a party house.
The rest of the state’s media also haven’t written about the director of the Alabama Ethics Commission having his children’s college tuition paid for from a charitable trust upon which he is a board member. That story sprung from our UA investigation.
It’s kind of hard to believe isn’t it, that newspapers and TV stations across Alabama haven’t told their readers and viewers any of this? One might start to wonder if corruption in Alabama doesn’t all work hand in glove — unethical behavior at the big school is overlooked by the unethical director of the Ethics Commission and the unethical members of the state media look the other way and find something easier to beat on.
After seven months of covering all of this, it’s become much easier to see why Alabama is so corrupt. Not only are our political and institutional leaders out for themselves, but the “watchdog” media is also either complicit, straight up inept or worried they’ll get locked out of Nick Saban’s next presser if they report on this.
For instance, one issue St. John’s office has refused to address is the supposed “national and international” search that put him in his $1 million-a-year job. If you’re not familiar with the fairy tale of how this occurred, it goes like this: Previous Chancellor Ray Hayes suddenly decided after just two years in a job that paid him roughly $600,000 a year to retire to work on student health issues. St. John, a member of the UA Board of Trustees for 17 years, selflessly volunteered to step down and serve as interim chancellor — with zero pay, mind you! — while the University System turned over every rock looking for its new leader. But after an extensive search that lasted less than nine months, his former colleagues on the board realized they had what they needed all along. Fess was the best choice, doggone it! So they made him full time and massively increased the chancellor’s salary just for fun.
It’s a good story, but it’s just that. The reality looks a lot more like St. John orchestrated his move to the chancellor’s office by forcing Hayes out and buying him off with $1.3 million in post-retirement pay, and no actual search was ever conducted. In fact, St. John’s office got an Alabama Attorney General’s opinion during the search period that essentially stated the board could choose whomever it wanted as chancellor and no one could interfere, not even the State Legislature. Seems like a strange thing to ask about, but St. John was appointed shortly after the opinion came down.
Normally in a university search, finalists are announced and interviewed by faculty, trustees and even students. None of that happened with St. John. I’ve been told by multiple sources the only “search” that occurred was a list of names gleaned from Google to offer as possible interviewees. I’ve asked St. John’s office several times to provide names of finalists, or even just to tell me how many people came to the university to be interviewed. They’ve refused to answer the question.
But here’s where it gets deeper. The publications that routinely cover UA — al.com, Tuscaloosa News, The Crimson White, etc. — simply wrote that St. John has been appointed and dutifully reported all the glowing accolades heaped upon him by trustees. No one ever asked if there were other finalists or how it happened. They also didn’t report his new salary. They work that beat all the time. To say it’s pathetic reporting would be an understatement.
What has become strikingly clear over the past seven months is that Fess St. John runs an ethically challenged office and wastes millions in taxpayer dollars running the UA System like a game of Monopoly. The UA Board of Trustees that should check him is full of sycophants more concerned with being treated like big shots on football Saturday than actually running the System properly.
The trustees have made St. John and his staff among the highest paid in America even as standards and employee morale fall. They can’t be counted on to do anything about this. They’re probably too busy planning parties in their new $4.3 million playhouse.
Things are running amok within the UA System, but don’t expect anyone to do anything about it even as UA comes back to the Legislature next year for nearly $600 million in tax dollars. Even the RSA appears content to let UA spike retirement benefits for outgoing administrators without saying much.
The best part of all is you’ll never hear a word about any of this from 99 percent of the state’s media outlets, which, I guess, means it never really happened.
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