Ken Hare In Depth: What a probe of ASU should look like

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama taxpayers, who sink a lot of money each year into Alabama State University, have reason to watch carefully as new episodes of the "As ASU Turns" soap opera air over the coming weeks. And they should hope that such elected officials as the attorney general and the governor are watching closely as well.

By now, most readers know the basics of the plot line. ASU's spanking-new president, Dr. Joseph Silver, was placed on administrative leave by the board's executive committee. Silver claimed in comments to the news media that he was being shunted aside because he had asked questions about financial dealings and contracts at ASU. A scheduled board meeting to discuss Silver's future was delayed by one day so that Gov. Robert Bentley could attend.

When the board did meet, with Bentley sitting in, it endorsed the executive committee decision to put Silver on leave. Its members voted to bring back former president William Harris as the acting president until issues are resolved. And it decided to ask its regular outside auditors to conduct another audit of contracts.

In other words, not much changed at the meeting. Silver is still on paid leave. Harris, who was president during the period when possible improprieties might have occurred, is coming back. And the regular auditors are coming back as well.

Bentley said at the meeting: "The issue before all of us now is to do what is best for Alabama State University. Toward that end, Chairman Dean has agreed with me that an independent and comprehensive financial audit of this university will be conducted immediately. That is a positive step in the right direction. The students, faculty, staff and alumni of Alabama State University, and all the people of this state, deserve transparency in everything that we do. And I am going to make sure that happens."

The audit requested by the ASU board could be a significant development. Or it could be much ado about nothing. It depends upon specifically what the auditors are asked to do. If they are asked to simply do what they normally do -- look at accounting procedures and ensure that contracts are signed and bills are in order -- then it probably won't mean much.

But if they are asked to do a "forensic audit," then it could be significant.

As anyone who closely follows scandals in Alabama public agencies knows, normal audits are not where most of the significant improprieties within public agencies originate.

Take the widespread scandal in Alabama's public two-year college system of a few years ago. The system and the public colleges involved had regular audits performed by the State Examiners of Public Accounts, and those audits disclosed none of the major improprieties later uncovered in the two-year colleges.

I talked with Jim Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, about the ASU situation. Sumner was careful not to offer any opinions on ASU, since his agency may at some point have to get involved. But he did agree with my premise that those looking into questions raised by Dr. Silver  would be wise to take a look back at the improprieties uncovered in the two-year college probe to see if some of the same patterns exist at ASU.

"A lot of those things would never show up in a regular audit," Sumner said.

Based on those issues uncovered by the news media and criminal investigators in the two-year college probe, those looking at ASU should:

  1. Take a close look at well-connected public figures who hold jobs or contracts at ASU or whose close family members hold jobs or contracts. The two-year colleges were found to be rife with elected officials and their family members who held high-paid jobs or contracts, often for which they did little or no work.
  2. Look closely at foundations, centers or other organizations affiliated with the university. Those who probed the two-year college system found such affiliated groups were sometimes used as a conduit for money for questionable purposes.
  3. Look beyond just contracts to ensure that there aren't what Sumner referred to as "off-line deal cutting" going on. For instance, federal investigators found that a contractor had done very expensive work for nothing for the then-chancellor of the two-year colleges. However, auditors who simply looked only at the contract itself probably would have found nothing out of line.

Let me be perfectly clear: There may be no major improprieties occurring at ASU. But Silver has raised serious questions that deserve to be answered by an outside agency. It remains to be seen whether the private auditing firm used by ASU is the right group.

But it's important that the governor and other public officials push to have the audit go far beyond just whether ASU followed correct accounting procedures. As the public has learned the hard way with Enron and HealthSouth and other high-profile scandals, clean audits don't always mean there isn't something dirty somewhere.


Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.