Another big report from the D-G’s Eric Besson this morning with more evidence of the Razorback Foundation’s fingerprints being all over the activities of the University of Arkansas. That’s no surprise to readers of this blog, but Besson unearthed new supporting details, including documentation that Razorback Foundation officials directly participated in university athletic department job interviews.
The Foundation, which supports UA athletics, is ostensibly an independent nonprofit — a status that is has used to declare itself exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. It’s a flimsy and risible fiction that the Foundation has used to shield its activities from public scrutiny.
The D-G has reviewed 22,000 pages of emails exchanged between the Foundation and university staff, acquired by FOIA request to the university itself. In addition to the Foundation’s participation during candidate interviews, which included offering feedback to the university, Besson’s reports that those public records reveal that Foundation officials attended exclusive, high-level athletic department strategy sessions; the involvement of Foundation leadership in a discussion over the structure of staff positions in the athletic department; and close coordination between university and Foundation staff over ticket sales and donations to the Foundation.
Scott Varady, the executive director of the Foundation who keeps a tight grip on the foundation’s records by claiming its independent status, told the D-G that Foundation staff were allowed to meet with job candidates as a “matter of courtesy.” There can be little doubt that the Foundation has a significant say in the school’s choice for football coach and athletic director, since it’s footing the bill for the process: The deals are struck in consultation with Foundation officials who promise to keep the money flowing to meet those obligations; the Foundation is paying the massive severance packages to fired coach Bret Bielema and fired athletic director Jeff Long; it funded the outside search firms hired to find replacements; and it doled out the $2 million required to get new coach Chad Morris out of his previous contract. The records reviewed by Besson reveal that the Foundation also got involved during the search process for candidates for lower staff positions related to ticket sales, including account executive for premium seats and associate director of ticket operations. Candidates for these positions had interviews scheduled with the Foundation as part of the interview process, records show.
Foundation officials also communicated and coordinated directly with account executives at the university regarding fans interested in tickets or purchasing upgrades, including Foundation members who had complaints about their seating arrangements. In one case, a Foundation staffer helped a fan sign up for basketball seats; in response a university account executive wrote asking whether he should fill out the fan’s paperwork for a donation to the Foundation.
Athletic department spokesman Kevin Trainor told the D-G, “For the convenience and benefit of donors and ticket holders, the [university-funded] Razorback Ticket Office and the Razorback Foundation work together to make the donation and ticket purchasing process as convenient as possible.” Heh.
There’s much more in Besson’s report, including Varady’s involvement in high-level discussions over staffing structure and the attendance of Foundation officials at regular meetings of the athletic director’s executive and senior staffs. They’ve attended these high-level meetings, along with a very small group of top staffers, since 2012. Varady told the D-G, “To be clear, our attendance in these meetings does not make us ‘part’ of the ‘athletic director’s executive staff’ or the senior staff. In these meetings, we do not make decisions for the Athletic Department, and the Athletic Department does not make decisions for the Razorback Foundation.” I’m sure they’re just quiet observers and university staff pays them no mind!
No point in going too far through the looking glass with Varady’s obfuscations and legalese. The question is whether someone is going to file a lawsuit to demand that the Razorback Foundation end the charade and comply with the FOIA. It would require serious funding to go up against the Hogland legal team, although there’s reason to believe it’s a winnable case. This fight has been going on for more than thirty years, as Max Brantley has recounted on this blog.
A records request by the Arkansas Gazette in the 1980s led to attorney general Steve Clark issuing an opinion that the records were public; after a protracted fight, the Gazette got the records. In response, the Foundation moved off campus and took other steps to shield itself from public sunshine, hiding all records from public view from that point on. It has been “independent” ever since, refusing every effort by the public to know what it’s up to, despite its obvious affiliation with a public university. The D-G has been doing yeoman’s work this year using records directly from the university to establish that the Foundation is not meaningfully independent from the athletic department it supports.
It would make for compelling evidence, if the newspaper, or someone, decides to sue.