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House panel subpoenas UCF president, former president, former chair, others

Constituents ask about “what I would call a pattern of misconduct,” at UCF, David Smith said.

The president, past president, and past Board of Trustees chairman and the former chief financial officer who is at the center of the University of Central Florida’s spending scandal all are being subpoenaed to testify before the Florida House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.

That panel unanimously voted to bring UCF President Dale Whittaker, former President John Hitt, former Board Chair Marcos Marchena, and former Chief Financial officer Bill Merck for depositions and appearances before the committee. The four will be compelled to testify about what happened when the university illegally spent $38 million on a new classroom building and programmed another $47 million to be illegally spent on other projects.

The panel also subpoenaed 10 other current and former UCF executives to give sworn depositions, but not necessarily to sit before the committee.

Those subpoenas were approved Wednesday after Committee Chair Tom Leek, the committee’s Staff Director Don Rubottom, and Florida Universities Chancellor Marshall Criser III all expressed no confidence in UCF or its trustees to investigate the matters themselves. The school did so, to a point. But two weeks ago, the UCF board, then led by Marchena, voted to terminate the investigation once it concluded that Merck was behind the plan, four of his deputies helped, and Hitt knew about it, but that Whittaker, the board members themselves and others were ignorant.

“We still aren’t to the bottom of the motivations of all of this,” Rubottom told the committee. “At this point, no one at UCF admits to knowing that it was wrong to spend operating funds on construction projects. Nobody admits that they should have known.”

At issue is how UCF reprogrammed $38 million of operating money, from the state’s Education and General Fund money, to build a new Trevor Colbourn Hall. That money was siphoned between 2013 and ’18 from the state’s E&G Fund appropriations, to build a building the state had neither authorized nor appropriated Public Education Capital Outlay money for. The building was built in 2017 and ’18. When the Florida Auditor General’s Office began looking into it last year, UCF hired its own investigators, which found an additional $13.8 million of E&G funding was used in eight other university construction projects across the campus, including a building for one of the university’s marquee research programs the CREOL building for the College of Optics and Photonics. Another $32.7 million in E&G funds were budgeted by UCF for construction projects but never spent.

There have been some consequences. Faced with the likely findings of a Florida Audit General report last year, Merck retired in September. Hitt had previously retired in good standing at the end of June, afer 26 years as UCF president. But two weeks ago, when the university’s investigation was reported, the UCF board stripped Hitt of a president emeritus position and half the $300,000 salary that went with it. Whittaker, who had been provost through most of the period involved, had succeeded Hitt as president in July. Two weeks ago the UCF board revoked bonuses to both Merck and Whittaker. Whittaker fired the four executives who worked under Merck. Faced with criticism from the Florida Board of Governors last week, Marchena resigned as the UCF board chair but kept his seat on the board.

Criser, Leek and other House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee members all made it clear Wednesday that investigations will go forward from here, and they do not believe the fallout is nearly over. Criser said the Board of Governors is going to pick up UCF’s investigation and finish it, and make UCF pay for it.

State Rep. David Smith, a Republican from Winter Springs, represents a district that borders UCF, just across the Seminole-Orange counties line. He said people in his district want more answers. Among the questions: whether misconduct extended beyond use of E&G funds.

“I’m often challenged by what I would call a pattern of misconduct,” Smith said. “I’d like to see, as we continue to audit and look at things, if there aren’t other manners in which this ‘pop-up money,’ this ‘surprise money’ came to the board of trustees, if there aren’t other things going on also. I’m not saying necessarily that where there’s smoke there’s fire or there’s anything that’s criminal. But I think that the expectation of my constituents is that this be fully investigated, and that everybody that needs to be held accountable is held accountable.”

“It’s this committee’s expectation that there will be a full investigation,” replied Leek, a Republican from Ormond Beach.

Most of the witnesses being subpoenaed have been interviewed before, in either the Auditor General’s probe or UCF’s probe. But none of them were interviewed under oath, and some refused to respond to follow-up interviews, Rubottom said.

He said he was confident that Whittaker and Marchena [who both still have their UCF positions that the state could take away] would willingly appear. He said he was hopeful Merck would come in. He said he was uncertain about Hitt, who lives in Wisconsin now and might be out of range for either the Florida House of Representatives or Florida Circuit Courts to sanction should he refuse to honor the subpoena.

Among the others being subpoenaed for depositions are UCF’s Vice President and General Counsel W. Scott Cole and Interim Chief Financial Officer Kathryn A. Mitchell.

Criser also laid out early findings of a similar investigation the Board of Governors has requested at the University of South Florida, which to date has revealed some potential similar misspending, involving $6.4 million used to construct one building on campus. He said the investigation is looking at 51 different projects, and that a report should be completed within a couple of weeks.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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