The official reaction to the downfall of affable Lu Hardin, however, was sadness. His old friend, Gov. Mike Beebe, and his political ally and enabler, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, grieved at Hardin’s guilty plea in federal court to charges of money laundering and wire fraud. His friend and supporter Sheffield Nelson and trustees of the university that he tried to cheat out of $300,000 or $400,000 told the morning paper that Hardin was a very good man who got into debt and made bad choices.
We have no impulse to celebrate Hardin’s indictment and instantaneous guilty plea. Like each of the fallen angels in Congress, most of them publicly pious men who had done some good things with their lives, Lu Hardin never struck us as a bad man, only as a ruthlessly ambitious one. But there are thousands of men in the state’s penitentiaries who were driven to do bad things by economic or social circumstances, and most of them never got close to $400,000.
Hardin, a former state senator, commissioner of higher education and president of two universities, could get 30 years in prison and $500,000 in fines, but if he gets a prison sentence or a fine at all it will be very light. We are not sure it would serve any purpose to lock up Lu Hardin, although there are men and women who sold illegal drugs or knocked over a few vending machines who are sweating out many years in prison.
Hardin’s crimes are well known—they were well known even when a Christian school in Florida, Palm Beach Atlantic University, hired him as president 20 months ago. Huckabee helped get him the job, though the deeds that earned him the indictment had been spread across the pages of Arkansas newspapers, and he was under investigation.
Mired in debt, reportedly to gambling casinos, Hardin kept getting himself big raises and bonuses at the University of Central Arkansas and finally dictated a memo to his secretary to be distributed to the university’s board of trustees. He attached to the memo the names of three vice presidents, without their knowledge, saying that $300,000 in private funds was available to advance him money under a deferred-compensation agreement. He was already getting the maximum that the law allowed in public compensation, $250,000, and the $300,000 would be illegal unless it really were totally private money. It was not. It was taxpayer money. Then Hardin turned around and sent a phony memo from the board president to the disbursing officer telling him to start giving Hardin the money.
The indictment mentioned another $100,000 illegal advance that had never been reported.
That was not all there was to the mess that his administration created at UCA, but it was the part that was clearly illegal. The investigation is continuing. The grand jury has said nothing yet about a Hardin subterfuge to sneak money illegally to the football coach by laundering it through an advertising account.
Although even-handed justice might require it, no one, we imagine, has any interest in seeing Lu Hardin go to the penitentiary. The headlines, the disgrace and the end of a lucrative academic career are substantial punishment. The university got all the money back, from Hardin or his friends, though it has not recovered its reputation and stability.
It is important that Hardin was called to account in criminal court for his deeds and not simply endure the bad publicity. Powerful men who do wrong are celebrated for their honorable deeds and their Christian piety, but they must be held to accounts the same as the poor man who is driven by the same impulses to commit petty crimes but gets hard time and no public encomiums.
Hardin was driven by political ambition. He wanted to be governor or a United States senator. He lost a close race for the U.S. Senate in the Democratic primary of 1996 and then switched to the party of Huckabee. The governor appointed him director of the state Department of Higher Education, which put him into position to angle for the presidency at UCA, held by Dr. Winfred Thompson. The UCA board had chosen Thompson over Hardin 15 years earlier.
When Huckabee neared having a majority on the UCA board, Thompson saw that he would soon be fired. He resigned and became president of the American University in the United Arab Emirates. Huckabee and Nelson pressured the UCA board into appointing Hardin president. It would put him in position to run for governor or the Senate in a few years. Hardin turned the school into a public-relations studio, appearing in regular television commercials promoting the school and starring in lavish editorials in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was the wunderkind of higher education.
The story line now is that he developed a high-roller gambling habit, which disoriented his moral compass. At least it was not sex.