We agree with former University of Louisville board of trustees chairman Bob Hughes that there were no big surprises, no “smoking gun,” in the report released by State Auditor Mike Harmon of the governance of U of L and its relationship with the enormous U of L Foundation.
But that is hardly reason to be satisfied.
What the report did confirm was the existence of a bunker-like, self-dealing group, headed by former U of L President James Ramsey, who was also president of the foundation, that broached no input from perceived outsiders — including members of the boards of both organizations — and attacked those who questioned their activities.
For years these insiders attempted to stonewall every effort to increase transparency in the murky operations of the almost-billion-dollar foundation, whether from news organizations or board members. In the end, they even tried to stymie the state auditor’s office in its efforts.
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“Delays and inconsistencies in information provided which, along with numerous open records violations, validated concerns of poor transparency,” the report states. The obstruction extended both the time it took to complete the examination and its cost, which will be paid by the foundation.
The push for transparency at U of L and in its foundation’s operations came from several media outlets — most notably the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WDRB — that have tried to pry open this chamber of secrets for years, at great cost and effort.
Although its popular now among many public figures to routinely vilify journalists, without them it’s quite likely neither U of L’s board members nor the public would know that — thanks to huge boosts from the foundation not approved by the university’s board — Ramsey was among the most highly paid public university president’s in the country. And his two top aides received a combined $3 million-plus from the foundation over three years in addition to their U of L salaries.
And the story is still not over.
While, as Hughes noted, the report found “no criminality, there was no malfeasance in anything pointed out,” that really wasn’t the auditor’s job here. The task was to look into what the auditor’s report termed “governance issues” between the university and the foundation.
Called an examination not an audit, it was a bipartisan effort, begun under Democratic former auditor Adam Edelen and continued by Harmon after his election last fall.
A private, outside auditing firm is now conducting a forensic audit of the foundation’s complex finances, but the findings probably won’t be available before the middle of next year. Notably, calls for that close look at the financial dealings came from individuals and foundations that have made significant gifts to the foundation.
Hughes and Ramsey, responding to the auditor’s report and other criticisms consistently point to the progress U of L made during Ramsey’s 14-year tenure. They seemed to believe that questionable payments to Ramsey and his top aides, secrecy and who-knows-what-else should all be ignored because, gee whiz, U of L was prospering.
The long, sad, expensive saga of U of L’s struggle to regain credibility is proof they were wrong.