WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Lu Hardin, who resigned abruptly as Palm Beach Atlantic University president on Friday, plead guilty in federal court in Little Rock Monday to two federal felony charges — wire fraud and money laundering.
U.S. attorney Chris Thyer said the two felony charges were in connection with the public portion of the illegal bonuses Hardin received while president at Central Arkansas, where he resigned in 2008. Hardin allegedly forged the names of university vice presidents to justify the early payment. The total bonus was for $300,000, with the public portion at $198,000. Thyer later said the money was used to pay off debt in another state, but wouldn’t elaborate.
Hardin was hired by PBAU in 2009 despite lingering questions about alleged financial issues in Arkansas.
Hardin later paid back the money, and now faces up to 20 years in prison. However, Thyer said it’s more likely that he would receive a sentence of 18 to 24 months.
Karl Watson, who serves on the PBAU board, said he was “somewhat shocked” at this morning’s guilty plea.
PBAU officials said they weren’t aware that former Hardin aides had testified in front of a grand jury in Arkansas, despite an Associated Press article in November detailing the investigation.
“The university was never contacted by the grand jury,” PBAU spokeswoman Becky Peeling said. “All the information we have is what’s being reported by the media. I think the trustees did their due diligence just about two years ago when the search process (to hire Hardin) was in place, asking all the right questions. The evidence they saw at the time led them to make the decisions they made, and perhaps subsequent to that, new evidence came to light.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hardin forged Central Arkansas officials names to support the early bonus (an issue that PBAU was aware of when they hired him), and then instructed his secretary to destroy the evidence.
No sentencing date has been set yet.
On Friday, PBAU officials said they were unaware that a grand jury was investigating Hardin, despite an Associated Press article in November that reported former aides of Hardin were testifying before the grand jury.
According to the Associated Press, by law, Central Arkansas cannot use public funds to supplement Hardin’s pay beyond 25 percent of state-mandated salary caps. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in an advisory opinion issued in July 2008 that the funding source the board planned to use for Hardin’s bonuses — housing fees and food and book sales — was public money.
Hardin, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1996, switched to the Republican Party in 1997 and was appointed director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee.
He became Central Arkansas’ president in September 2002.
Palm Beach Atlantic is a private, faith-based university in West Palm Beach with an enrollment of about 3,000 students. The university will look to hire an interim president, possibly this week, before beginning a search for a new full time president, said PBAU spokeswoman Peeling.
Peeling praised Hardin’s brief tenure at the university.
“We look at what was accomplished here,” Peeling said. “The university is bigger than one person, and we can’t say all good things happened in the last 20 months can be directly attributed to Lu Hardin because we have a huge, talented staff. But the university has made progress over that time — enrollment is up, visits are up and things are good at the university.”
West Palm Beach City Commissioner Bill Moss said he worked closely with Hardin. The university recently purchased 90 acres from the county as a park and athletic field, and PBAU agreed to donate 11 acres to the city as a park.
“It’s a shame because (Hardin’s) done a lot of good for the community, and the university,” Moss said. “I dealt with him a lot on in the Haverhill area with the park and athletic fields. I always found to be a man of his word, and I just hope whoever they bring in continues with that same direction the with the athletic field our city parks.”
Moss said Hardin seemed to be really settling into West Palm Beach life, making his departure that much more puzzling.
“He bought a condo downtown, he loved being a resident of downtown and he loved everything we had accomplished. He was one of our biggest fans,” Moss said. “He and his wife both, I saw them out few months ago. They were looking to buy a dog, and settling in.”