Federal inquiry at UCA closes; no new charges

— A federal investigation of wrongdoing at the University of Central Arkansas during Lu Hardin’s presidency has concluded with no charges beyond Hardin’s own 2011 conviction on two felony counts.

In September 2011, a prosecutor disclosed that Hardin, who had been sentenced to probation and community service, was cooperating with the FBI in another UCA investigation. Hardin had earlier pleaded guilty to money laundering and wire fraud.

At the time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris did not disclose any details about that probe, which apparently involved Little Rock advertising executive Ben Combs and a former top UCA vice president, Joe Darling. But Tuesday, Combs’ defense attorney, Jack Lassiter of Little Rock, confirmed speculation that the investigation had involved payments to head football Coach Clint Conque for a television program.

A 2009 state audit implicated UCA’s primary advertising agency — Combs & Co. — and Darling in a purported effort to convert public funds to private funds as part of a plan to pay Conque above the state salary cap. The audit did not accuse Conque of any wrongdoing and did not mention Combs or Conque by name.

After seeing the audit, UCA President Tom Courtway eliminated Darling’s job and soon severed ties with Combs & Co., the school’s primary advertising agency.

Asked Tuesday if the UCA investigation was over, Harris said, “I think it is correct” that it is.

Harris commented moments after Lassiter said Harris had told him recently that Combs would not be charged.

“I have talked to Pat Harris on two occasions,” Lassiter said. “He made it unequivocal to me that Ben Combs is not going to be charged.”

Lassiter said he would “assume the same applies to Mr. Darling.” Lassiter, however, referred questions about Darling to Darling’s attorney, Bill Brazzil of Conway.

Contacted by e-mail, Brazzil replied, “Not a word” when asked, among other things, if he could comment on whether he or Darling had been informed whether Darling would be charged.

Lassiter said he first learned of the decision not to charge Combs from Harris a couple of months ago, “then again two or three weeks ago.”

The investigation has concluded, Lassiter added.

Told of Lassiter’s comments, Harris said, “I can confirm that Jack’s not lying to you. ... Mr. Lassiter is not one to make stuff up.”

Harris, however, would not comment on Lassiter’s assumption about Darling.

No one answered a phone at Darling’s residence Tuesday, and Combs did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.

Combs has previously denied wrongdoing. In 2009, he said he was not part of any money-conversion effort.

In a response included in the state audit, Darling said UCA had agreed to buy sponsorships of the coach’s television program and viewed the show as “a good advertising investment.”

“We paid the sponsorship invoices as presented and had no subsequent knowledge or participation in the distribution of the sponsorship revenues,” Darling added.

When asked if Harris had said why Combs would not be charged, Lassiter replied, “I really didn’t get into that with him. I heard what I wanted to [hear] from him.”

But Lassiter said he believes the decision exonerates his client. “He never felt like he’d done anything close to anything criminal,” Lassiter said of Combs.

Lassiter said he has no reason to believe that Combs was ever “targeted by [a] grand jury.”

Rather, Lassiter said, “I’m just assuming the U.S. attorney’s office made the decision not to go any further with it [the investigation].”

Courtway said Tuesday that he had “assumed” the investigation was over and that this latest information “obviously ... has validated” that assumption.

“I don’t have any comment beyond that,” Courtway said.

Hardin resigned in late August 2008 after contention arose over a $300,000 bonus he had secretly received and a memorandum he had falsified to get the money. He repaid the bonus before leaving UCA.

Arkansas, Pages 13 on 10/17/2012

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