Having a highly paid administrative official wash and clean trash out of his personal vehicle is just one example of an elitist attitude University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John IV has instilled during his time leading the state’s largest university system, according to current and former employees.
A video of what is purported to be Director of System Security Steven Anderson pulling St. John’s Audi A8L luxury sedan into his reserved parking spot next to Sid McDonald Hall and buffing and cleaning out the vehicle was sent to Lagniappe last week by an employee who did so under the condition of anonymity. The video was taken last year, but the employee said it was not a one-time event and that Anderson had been made to wash and clean St. John’s car routinely.
When sent the video, System Vice Chancellor Sid Trant did not deny it showed Anderson cleaning St. John’s car, but said questions about whether it is appropriate to have him washing and cleaning the chancellor’s personal vehicle “mischaracterize the video.”
“The automobile in question is used for UA System business purposes,” Trant wrote, directing a reporter to the UA System Employee Handbook for information on policies and procedures. The handbook did not contain information regarding administrators ordering subordinates to perform personal tasks, or describe if or when that is acceptable.
Lagniappe showed the video to a few individuals who would have knowledge of the circumstances and they all confirmed, on condition of anonymity, that it does indeed show Anderson cleaning St. John’s car. They also said the practice was well known and that Anderson, who had been the city of Tuscaloosa Police Chief prior to joining the System Office, expressed surprise when first asked to perform this task.
In the video taken from Sid McDonald Hall, a man drives the car into the parking space, opens the door, then begins buffing the dashboard with a red cloth. He gets out, closes the door and wipes down the front driver’s side window. After that, he opens the driver’s door again and checks the side pockets. He repeats that with the rear door, collecting a small plastic bag of what appears to be trash, closing the door and walking away across the lot.
Trant did not elaborate as to why the use of St. John’s personal car for UA System business purposes would make it acceptable under state law for a System employee to be ordered to clean it. The state defines the owner of a car as “A person who holds the legal title of a motor vehicle.” St. John receives a $12,000-a-year car allowance, but the car is not owned or leased by the System. In fact, sources told Lagniappe St. John’s ownership of the Audi predates his hiring as chancellor in 2019 and that it also still carries a license plate that starts with the number 25, indicating a Cullman County registration. St. John is from Cullman County. A photo of the license plate was sent to Lagniappe.
Even if it were permissible for System employees to wash and clean St. John’s car during work hours, the question still remains of why he would have a $140,000-a-year director of security do so. Alabama Ethics Law suggests the practice of having employees wash and clean the chancellor’s personal car could be a violation.
Section 36-25-5(c) states: “No public official or public employee shall use or cause to be used equipment, facilities, time, materials, human labor, or other public property under his or her discretion or control for the private benefit or business benefit of the public official, public employee, any other person, or principal campaign committee as defined in Section 17-22A-2, which would materially affect his or her financial interest, except as otherwise provided by law or as provided pursuant to a lawful employment agreement regulated by agency policy.
A public official/employee is prohibited from soliciting use of, using, or causing to be used public time, labor, or property under his or her discretion or control for his or her private or business benefit. Cynthia Propst Raulston, General Counsel for the Alabama Ethics Commission, said the agency would be unable to offer guidance regarding the ethics of Anderson washing and cleaning St. John’s vehicle.
“We are unable to give an opinion about behavior that has already occurred. The statutes concerning this potential behavior are Ala. Code §§ 36-25-5(a), (c), and (e),” she wrote.
Both current and former employees have complained morale across the UA System is as low as they’ve ever experienced due to an atmosphere of harsh top-down management. They tell stories about the administration’s fixation with non-disclosure agreements and employees being escorted from their offices by security after termination.
A tangible example of what they’ve described is the UA Division of Advancement’s recently commissioned survey aimed at gauging the attitudes and morale of its employees. Lagniappe obtained a July 6 email from Vice President for Advancement Bob Pierce to more than 30 staffers explaining the survey they would soon receive.
“While we must obviously remain focused on our mission, the senior leadership team and I believe it is now time to look at the potential attitudinal and cultural success of the Division with an organizational culture assessment. I will meet with the various offices of the Division in a couple of weeks to discuss this concept in more detail, but the engagement will give us the opportunity to gauge our attitudes toward, and commitment to, our work, the Division, the University and each other,” the email read.
Pierce went on to explain the division had hired an outside consultant, Blue Beyond Consulting, to conduct a confidential survey of each member of the division.
“We will discuss this more in our upcoming meetings, but I hope every member of the Division will make a commitment to participate and help us ensure we are fostering the best organizational environment possible,” he wrote.
Pierce’s division saw one of its employees — Leslie Abernathy — come to a legal settlement in March over harassment claims. The System has admitted to the settlement, which required Abernathy to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Numerous current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity, say Lagniappe’s recent articles detailing millions unnecessarily paid out to already highly paid administrators when they leave or take lesser positions have further soured lower level employees who haven’t seen raises in some time. They also expressed outrage the System and Board of Trustees would spend so much further rewarding administrators who were already making hundreds of thousands a year.
System officials have still not provided answers to why former presidents and chancellors have been essentially gifted millions of dollars upon retirement, or why the salaries for many administrative positions increased so dramatically when new hires came in.
For instance, former Chancellor Ray Hayes was paid $715,000 by the System his last 12 months in the job, but St. John’s salary was paid $922,000 his second year on the job — a 29 percent increase over his predecessor. Greg Byrne, the UA Director of Athletics, made $1.8 million last year. Four years ago, his predecessor Bill Battle was being paid $721,000 to do the same job.
Insiders have complained no cost appears too excessive when it benefits top administrators, but that generosity does not extend to the rank-and-file. For instance, several have mentioned an ongoing renovation in the 6-year-old Sid McDonald Hall, which houses the University System Offices, including the chancellor’s.
It has been described by insiders to Lagniappe as an unnecessary and fairly extensive renovation of areas near the chancellor’s office that will enclose or create new offices and better kitchen facilities, among other things. Trant dismissed the notion that the renovations are lavish in any way, though.
“As for the construction project, it appears you have again received misinformation. The Chancellor’s office is not being renovated, and there are no plans to renovate the Chancellor’s office,” he wrote. “A minor construction project planned since 2017 is currently underway in Sid McDonald Hall. The modifications will increase space efficiency by converting one open waiting area into two offices and updating a workroom to serve as a combined prep/work area.”
Trant included a cost estimate of up to $83,853 for the project.
Some sources believe recent revelations have pushed St. John’s office to attempt to lift morale via extracurricular activities. Last week, for example, some System Office employees were taken to Top Golf in Birmingham, where activities include hitting golf balls, riding go-carts and axe throwing. This week, a barbecue is scheduled for Friday.
One employee told Lagniappe those types of activities were actually cut out when St. John became chancellor, and both events were unexpectedly announced recently.
Rob Holbert is a co-publisher of Lagniappe. He can be emailed at email@example.com
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