The House investigation into misspending at the University of Central Florida concluded Thursday with a declaration that university officials had created a breach of public trust but that the institution is on the road to recovery.
“We are well on our way to restoring the public’s trust in the state expenditures by UCF and restoring the Legislature’s trust in UCF,” said state Rep. Tom Leek, a Republican from Ormond Beach who chairs the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee.
On Thursday his committee unanimously accepted an investigative report that found systematic failures of administration and oversight that led to a pattern and practice of illegal transfers of $85 million in state operating money for building construction, including for the $38 million Trevor Colbourn Hall building.
The report makes a half dozen general recommendations for changes in how Florida should oversee public universities, including changes to internal operations and oversight by each school’s board of trustees and the Florida Board of Governors. WIthin that it makes dozens of specific recommendations.
UCF already has taken a number of steps, including accepting the resignations of President Dale Whittaker and Board Chairman Marcos Marchena and a restructuring of its facilities and financial governance. And on Thursday UCF Interim President Thad Seymour pledged a new era of transparency and accountability.
“I promise we will make this right and we will make you proud of UCF,” Seymour said. Even before Seymour’s pledge, the committee indicated it is ready to close the book on the UCF scandal and move on.
“When we began down this road as a committee, which seems like forever ago now, I said that I thought that the issue in front of us was a breach of the public trust. And in fact, I think it was a breach of public trust,” Leek said.
“But as we sit here today, UCF owns the problem. It took us a little bit to get there, but UCF owns the problem. They have taken immediate corrective actions and appropriate corrective actions,” Leek said. “In fact a lot of the findings and recommendations you will find in the report today are based on some of the corrective actions that UCF took. And for that I’m very grateful.”
The House committee includes five members from Central Florida. Of them, Republican state Rep. Thad Altman of Indialantic, also came to UCF’s defense. Altman spoke of the report’s recommendations to add accountability and oversight, and stressed that adopting the report does not diminish UCF’s importance.
“We all love the University of Central Florida. It’s one of the great universities of our nation and many wonderful things have been achieved there by many wonderful people,” Altman said.
“And so having a great deal of respect for everyone involved, some of which involved in this report, I don’t think, in any way, shape, or form, my vote for these recommendations overshadows those great achievements by the university and by those individuals. But obviously we need to tighten up our financial management in the way things are done.
“I think this will have great benefits to our university system as a whole, that there will be more transparency, more accountability,” Altman added.
If there were any new revelations or concerns raised during the committee’s final hearing on the scandal Thursday, it involved questions raised about the role played by UCF’s general counsel, and what happened to four mid-level administrators whom Whittaker fired before he resigned.
The committee’s Staff Director Don Rubottom and several members of the committee expressed strong criticisms of the role that UCF’s general counsel played or did not play as UCF’s former Chief Financial Officer Bill Merck arranged the money moves, under the direction of former President John Hitt.
Hitt retired in June after 26 years. Merck retired under pressure in September after 22 years.
The report found them largely responsible for the misspending. It also faulted Whittaker for withholding information from the UCF Board of Trustees, and faulted the trustees for not practicing any oversight.
Rubottom said the university’s general counsel office — UCF Vice President and General Counsel Scott Cole was not mentioned by name — failed to advise the board or administrators that what was happening was illegal.
“The general counsel is general counsel for the board of trustees,” Rubottom said. “What we found, and it’s probably not uncommon at all, is a degree of passivity.
“And so you had a case of a president, a strong president, and a strong CFO making decisions, they were putting documents in front of a board of trustees for the board to approve. The board wasn’t receiving any legal counsel,” Rubottom said.
The matter of the fired mid-level administrators was brought by one of them, Lee Kernek, former associate vice president for facilities and safety. She told the committee she believed she was scapegoated as a whistleblower.
She is seeking reinstatement through channels. She accused the university of singling her out through its own independent investigation, done by the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which she charged was a whitewash intended to protect other UCF officials and blame others.
Leek and Rubottom pointed out that her individual case was outside the scope of authority for the committee and its investigation. Nonetheless, several committee members expressed sympathy for her and stressed that one of the report’s recommendations is to assure that whistleblowing is encouraged and protected.