Ken Hare In Depth: ASU hires high profile (and costly) lawyer to - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

Ken Hare In Depth: ASU hires high profile (and costly) lawyer to defend probe

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Alabama State University has called on one of the ultimate big legal guns to provide advice in the ongoing probe of the university -- retired federal judge U.W. Clemon of Birmingham.

Or should that previous paragraph have read "ongoing probes"?   

Readers will recall that when the ASU board of trustees was attempting to oust Dr. Joseph Silver as president of the university last year, Silver said it was as a result of his attempting to ask questions about how money and contracts were being handled at the public university.

Thanks to a lucrative buyout -- $685,000 -- Silver went away. But Gov. Robert Bentley pushed for a forensic audit of ASU to answer some of the same questions that Silver said he had attempted to ask. That forensic audit has been ongoing for several months now.

But recently, ASU's interim president, Dr. William Harris, raised the possibility that there could be more than one probe ongoing at ASU.

In discussing the board's approval of the hiring of legal counsel for ASU administrators, Harris said: "I recommend that the board grant authorities and responsibilities to the president to appoint counsel for university officials in their personal and official positions regarding the agreed upon procedures of the forensic audit and certain other investigations."

Note the phrase "other investigations."

Harris went on to refer to "those two operations out there."

Even before the ASU board meeting on May 10, rumors had been flying that Clemon and former ASU board member Donald Watkins had been retained as attorneys for ASU.

When questions were emailed to ASU officials about the "other investigations" and specifics of the university's new legal representation, the answer to one question became immediately clear -- the response came from Clemon himself.

Clemon said that he and his firm of White, Arnold & Dowd in Birmingham had been retained "to provide advice and counsel in connection with the forensic audit and related matters."

As for the "other investigations," Clemon's response was less clear.  He wrote that the "two operations" referred to by President Harris "are the forensic audit, and any ancillary legal matters arising from the audit which may adversely impact the mission and corporate interests of ASU."

Specifically asked if there was a federal probe of ASU, Clemon responded: "I respectfully refer you to the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama for the appropriate response to this question."

Specifically asked if there was a state probe beyond the audit of ASU, the retired judge wrote: "I respectfully refer you to the District Attorney of Montgomery County and the Attorney General of the State of Alabama for the appropriate response to this question."

Predictably, federal and state prosecutors followed their usual procedures and declined to comment on the possibility of ongoing investigations.

As for whether Watkins (a former board member, the son of a former ASU president, and a former Montgomery City Council member) had been retained, Clemon wrote that "ASU has not hired or placed Donald Watkins under contract. Rather, Mr. Watkins – whose father faithfully served as president of ASU for nearly two decades -- volunteers to ASU his valuable legal services and substantial expertise in forensic audits. These voluntary contributions are provided by him on an 'as needed' basis."

Clemon responded in a followup email that he was being paid  "$375 per hour for my services to ASU."

" There was no 'up front' retainage paid to me," he wrote. "My usual corporate rate varies between $450-500 hourly."

An aside: Before retiring as a newspaper editorial page editor, I was critical in an editorial of ASU's high legal fees when compared to other public universities of similar size. To its credit, ASU has whittled down considerably those annual legal fees -- which I do not believe include in-house lawyers. A recent report by State Examiners of Public Accounts shows that ASU's outside legal fees had declined from $957,288 in fiscal 2009-2010 to $417,523 in fiscal 2011-2012. But with ASU's ongoing legal problems with Silver and the forensic audit, as well as a highly publicized sexual harassment case now under appeal, it would not be surprising to see those numbers rising when figures are available for the current fiscal year.

As for the public finally getting a look at the results of that forensic audit, it could be a while.

Shortly after he called for the audit in December, Gov. Bentley estimated it would take about six months to complete. But that estimate is no longer in play.

This week a spokeswoman for the governor told me that that the "forensic audit is ongoing and at this point there is no timeline for completion."

Press Secretary Jennifer Ardis said that the governor wants it "to be completed as soon as possible" but also wants to ensure that it is thorough.

Asked if the possibility that it possibly could take longer than the six-month estimate meant that auditors were finding issues that needed to be followed up, she said only: "I cannot comment on any of the process of the investigation."

So it could be a while longer before that forensic audit results are made public. And as for learning about those "ancillary legal matters arising from the audit,"  all we can advise the public is to stay tuned.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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