Tuesday, September 27, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Lu Hardin goes free

Luther Hardin, or “Lu” as he wanted to be known in print, finagled to get $300,000 from the university he ran so that he could settle his gambling debts, but a federal judge concluded Monday that he should serve no time in the penitentiary, although it is swollen with men and women who did less but never enjoyed status, wealth or their community’s esteem. Thus does justice appear again to favor station and privilege, which is not how we like to imagine our country.

Nevertheless, we find it hard to insist upon the retribution that blind justice seems to require for Lu Hardin. Only six months of actual prison time might have served that end, although a $300,000 con job would have netted a poor man much more. But U.S. District Judge James Moody thought his penalties had been severe enough from the loss of livelihood, career (careers, if you count his lofty political ambitions) and reputation.

Shortly before his fall, Hardin was basking in the lavish encomiums of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial page, which yearned for other universities to be led by men of such sterling character and wisdom. Afterward, the paper attacked him with all the savagery of a spurned suitor. What a penance that must be for Lu Hardin to read.

Somehow we are loathe to fault Judge Moody for his leniency, although it may be that we, like the judge, are under the sway of Lu’s vibrant familiarity and charm and his unctuous solicitousness.

He was everyone’s friend and champion, including people in the media. That quality made him a superb politician, and had he not fallen so disgracefully it might have made him governor or U.S. senator, his great ambitions. He lost a race for the Senate in 1996 and with the help of Mike Huckabee built his résumé and public presence for another run, probably in 2014. That prospect, like his reputation, has vanished forever, and for a man of Lu Hardin’s needs that is harsh punishment indeed.

Judge Moody said he was moved also by Hardin’s penitence, the fact that he repaid the money (once he was caught), his kicking the gambling habit, the outpouring of affection from friends and family and by Hardin’s cooperation with the FBI’s continuing investigation of his affairs at the University of Central Arkansas. What untold crimes could that involve if Hardin himself did not spearhead them? We shall have to see.

Hardin was cutting legal and fiduciary corners to get what he wanted for the school, including better pay for the head football coach than the law allowed, but what brought him down was self-aggrandizement. He had persuaded the board of trustees to approve a $300,000 bonus to keep him from looking for another university job. According to his account, he got addicted to the slots and card tables and his gambling debts swarmed.

Desperate for quick money, he wrote a memo to the board advising it to give him the bonus immediately rather than later, and he attached the names of three other university officials as if it was their idea, not his. They knew nothing about it. The board awarded him the bonus. He first lied to the media about it, then confessed his dishonesty when the three officials let it be known that they had known nothing about the memo they supposedly wrote.

The board bought out the remaining years of Hardin’s contract in 2009 and he quickly took a job at even higher pay as president of a Christian college in Florida, Palm Beach Atlantic University. (He was given to preaching a lot, too.)

When he was indicted on charges of wire fraud and money laundering by a federal grand jury, he resigned that job, too, and pleaded guilty.

Hardin was given a five-year suspended sentence and ordered to do 200 hours of community service each year. He is no threat to anyone, except perhaps to himself.

Has justice been served? Not if you are a serial hot-check artist serving three years at Cummins. If you balance Hardin’s disgrace with the public’s need for safety, maybe so.