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Lawmaker, University Get Caught

August 24, 2009

Conflict of interest issues continue to befuddle universities and their legislative patrons.

Last month, The Virginian-Pilot ran an article raising questions about the hiring of Phillip Hamilton, a powerful Republican member of the House of Delegates, to lead a new Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership at Old Dominion University. The reason for the questions was that Hamilton had been the key legislator in obtaining state funds for the center. Both Hamilton and the university denied that there was any conflict of interest, telling the newspaper that discussions of his working at the center came only after the legislation had passed, and that he was well qualified and so couldn't be excluded.

While that argument didn't satisfy everyone, it turns out the argument wasn't even true.

The Daily Press, another Virginia newspaper, obtained and published e-mail messages between Hamilton and the university -- sent before the legislation moved -- in which he expressed interest in a job and duties and salary were discussed. The e-mails back and forth feature the lawmaker and senior university officials discussing both the salary and the prospects for the bill that he subsequently got through the General Assembly. Hamilton talks about the need to supplement his salary; the university officials are always encouraging, and sometimes they discuss the lawmaker's overall financial intake from the likely Old Dominion job and his other employment.

After the newspaper confronted him with the e-mail trail on Thursday, Hamilton quit his Old Dominion job and told the newspaper that the record it obtained "clearly creates the perception of impropriety, absolutely." The newspaper reported that he "nearly broke down" during the interview, and that while he "took responsibility" for the situation, he said he didn't remember the e-mail discussions about the job he eventually took.

Old Dominion officials declined to answer directly questions about how the university could have declared there to have been no conflict of interest when it had in fact discussed salary for the job should the center be created, prior to the center being created. A statement from the university said only that the center itself was important educationally, that Hamilton and the university had "mutually agreed to end" his relationship with the center, and that a full investigation would be conducted.

The hiring of legislators for public college positions that they helped create or over which they have influence used to be common, but is increasingly the subject of scrutiny.

In April, the president of Northwest Florida State College was indicted on charges related to the hiring of a powerful state legislator who had sent large grants to the college. A Florida state senator last year gave up her $120,000-a-year position at a Florida State University reading research center that she was instrumental in helping to create, four days after Inside Higher Ed first publicized the arrangement. A series of articles by The Birmingham News about cronyism and other wrongdoing in Alabama community colleges won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2007.

As for Delegate Hamilton, he's now running for re-election.

 

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