Gambling debts are what led former University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin to falsify documents so he could draw immediately from a $300,000 bonus, a longtime friend said Tuesday.
Sheffield Nelson, a businessman and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, said Hardin has some weight off of his shoulders now that the extent of his casino debt is publicly known and he understands the potential consequences. Hardin pleaded guilty Monday to single federal counts of wire fraud and money laundering.
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“We spoke early this morning. I wanted to see how he was standing up under the pressure of the press, after he saw the morning paper,” Nelson told The Associated Press in an interview. “He’s doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
Hardin could be sentenced up to 20 years in prison, though it’s unlikely that someone with no prior criminal record would get so much time. No sentencing date has been set.
“I hate it for him. He’s a fine person and an excellent educator,” Nelson said.
Hardin abruptly resigned Friday as president of Palm Beach Atlantic University in south Florida, where he’d been since 2009. He left the University of Central Arkansas a year earlier as the bonus issue erupted.
Hardin was a highly visible public figure for years in Arkansas politics and education.
He was a Democratic state senator for 14 years, made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 1996, and was later tapped by Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee to lead the Arkansas Higher Education Department. Hardin, an attorney, had been a professor of legal studies at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.
While higher education director, Hardin joined Huckabee in the Republican Party in April 1997. Five years later, with Huckabee’s strong recommendation, Hardin was named UCA president.
When he resigned in 2008, he didn’t rule himself out as a 2014 gubernatorial candidate.
The nature of Hardin’s quick need for a large amount of cash wasn’t disclosed during Monday’s 27-minute hearing in federal court in Little Rock Court. Part of the plea agreement was filed under seal.
Prosecutors said more information would be revealed after a pre-sentencing investigation was conducted.
Hardin admitted to falsifying a document to make it appear that three upper-level administrators had agreed that he could draw on the bonus early. He took $198,000, but paid it back after questions were initially raised about the bonus itself being approved by trustees without meeting in public. A federal grand jury investigation followed.
Hardin wasn’t indicted. He waived an appearance before the grand jury and agreed to plead guilty to the two charges.
Hardin’s attorney, Chuck Banks of Little Rock, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment Tuesday.
Nelson said he had spoken to Hardin before about his gambling problem but not while the debts were mounting. He believes Hardin has overcome his gambling habit, and said Hardin’s friends were stunned by the extent of the gambling.
“We were close to Lu but not close enough to pick up on the problem,” Nelson said. Had he known the extent, Nelson said, he would have tried to get Hardin to agree to some help.
Nelson said Hardin now appears to have his finances under control.
“I think he’s solvent. He was under a crushing amount of pressure and debt he had at one time,” Nelson said.
Despite the shame of pleading guilty to two federal felonies, Nelson said Hardin “has a burden off his shoulders.”