Wasteful stewardship of university resources characterizes convention candidate.
According to Michigan State University Board of Trustees Conflict of Interest Policy, some of the responsibilities of the individual and several members of the Michigan State University Board of Trustees are:
- Fiduciary Responsibilities: Trustees will act in a manner consistent with their fiduciary responsibilities to the University. Trustees will place the University’s interests ahead of their private interests. Trustees will exercise their powers and duties in the best interests of the Board and the University and for the public good.
- Conflict of Interest: (a) A conflict of interest exists when a Trustee’s financial interests or other opportunities for personal benefit may compromise, or reasonably appear to compromise, the Trustee’s independence of judgment in fulfilling his/her Board duties. (b) Trustees will endeavor to remain free from the influence of, or the appearance of, any conflicting interest in fulfilling their Board duties. Trustees will exercise care that no detriment to the University results from conflicts between their interests and those of the University. (c) Trustees will attempt to refrain from accepting duties, incurring obligations, or engaging in activities that would be incompatible with, or in conflict with, their Board duties.
Now, I’m not a Harvard-trained Philadelphia lawyer, but I am an educated man who is perfectly capable of understanding basic legalese. And I gotta tell you, I’m having one helluva time reconciling that with this here 7 Action News investigation from WXYZ-TV in Detroit.
Apparently, back around Halloween of last year, 7 Action News aired a report about how, while Michigan State University students have had to tighten their belts over the last year, “school officials have spent hundreds of thousands of school dollars on travel, entertainment, and meals” for the various members of the university’s Board of Trustees; said expense dollars being pulled from “other public money in university investment accounts.” The apparent purpose for this policy is to facilitate “the presence of Trustees” at events where donors and alumni will be in attendance, so as to encourage them to open up their wallets for the university.
The basic concept of the policy is a great idea. However, blowing through wads of Clevelands, while simultaneously putting the screws to students in the form of tuition hikes, doesn’t seem like sensible policy to this fiscal conservative. And while it’s technically true that the expense reimbursement money does come from a separate account than the ones that handle tuition and scholarship dollars, I also know that money is fungible, and that those funds probably could have been put to better use (especially since we’re apparently talking on the order of six figures here).
Four offenders were mentioned by name, democrat Faylene Owen being the worst of the lot so far as I could tell (which didn’t really surprise me). And while I’m also not really surprised to see fellow democrats Joel Ferguson and Diane Byrum also caught dipping into the public kitty, I was more than a tad thrown to see that “proven conservative leader” Melanie Foster had taken a ten-day junket to South Africa, costing the university $20,011, to recruit potential students, take some university tours, and attend an alumni dinner and reception. According to the follow-up report that aired seven weeks ago, Foster’s little boondoggle shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Apparently, Mrs. Foster’s South Africa trip was originally scheduled for February 2013; and based on what was known during the 2012 general campaign, Foster had every reason to believe that she’d be at least reelected, if not in a position to become Board Chair, so the original schedule was no big deal. However, finding herself a lame duck after the election, Foster moved the trip date up two months so that the university’s pocketbook would still pay for it. Board President Joel Ferguson is on-record as having told her to not take the trip, as there was no longer any benefit to be had for MSU. She went anyway. (According to an unconfirmed report, one of those “university tours” allegedly involved meeting some friends for a large safari trip, but that may also have been one of her two personal days.)
If we’re to believe Foster’s campaign FaceBook page, she personally paid for the majority of the cost of the trip (intended to build stronger relations with that part of the world), and all of this is a manufactured false accusation being driven by a potential convention opponent (Scott Schultz, I believe). Yet, according to 7 Action News, Foster didn’t write a $14,000 check towards her “husband’s expenses” until after WXYZ submitted a FOIA request for a copy of her bills. She also seemed to have a real problem answering questions on-camera – expressly stating that she “didn’t want to be on tape” – though she did offer that the board should look at putting an end to those perqs that she abused, as a cost-saving measure, because people will abuse them.
And go figure, now that the horse is out of the barn, the board has now closed the door by approving a new directive that requires all trustee trips to be vetted in advance and approved by the full board. According to the WXYZ reports, the current Board was surprised and upset to learn of the nature and extent of the expenditure abuses. Backchannel intel has it that both Owen and Foster have also upset the MSU donor base as well.
Melanie Foster would love to have us believe that this was a one-time lapse of judgment on her part, and the board has seen to it that this cannot happen again. So we should let it go, and rally around her and Jeff Sakwa in order to put a couple of conservatives onto the Michigan State University Board of Trustees in November. Go Green! Go White!
However, channeling my inner Paul Harvey, we haven’t yet heard the rest of the story.
On her own campaign website, Melanie cites her experience as a former Trustee – having been an Engler establishment (which I read as “moderate”) appointee at both MSU (1991-1992) and CMU (1997-2004), and then being elected back to MSU (2004-2012) – as providing her familiarity with the required workload. According to Foster, her major accomplishments during her previous tenure on the MSU Board were that she: (1) worked hard to achieve concessions from on-campus unions, (2) defended the Michigan Constitution by insisting on proper implementation of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, (3) saved construction costs by pushing back against union-favored Project Labor Agreements, and (4) fought off an administration proposal for ObamaCare-style healthcare requirements for students.
That list sounds halfway impressive, though clearly selected to resonate with grassroots conservatives who probably have these issues on their minds coming into this election cycle. The problem with that list is that at least one of the items on it is straight up malarkey.
According to the December 5th, 2008, meeting minutes from the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, a major discussion item was the Brody Hall Renovation project (complete with a requested project budget of $49,800,000). According to page 4 of those minutes, Brad Dennis (a university student at the time), Christopher Fisher (of the Association of Builders and Contractors of Michigan), and Renee Sandborn (President of Sandborn Construction) all testified that the university entering into a PLA for this project would be a bad idea, citing increased expenses, employment discrimination, and adverse effects on local business owners as the rationale for their objections.
Those objections weren’t without factual basis. According the Associated Builders and Contractors, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and The Truth About Project Labor Agreements, union-friendly project labor agreements carry a very public record of poor performance, specifically including:
- Cost and Schedule Overruns (15% to 20%, on average)
- Blatant Ethnic and Gender Discrimination
- Reduced Bid Competition (86%, on average)
- Safety Problems and Construction Defects
. . . which raises the question of why any reasonable person would support PLAs in the first place, let alone vote in favor of them.
Melanie Foster will likely point to the discussion on the project (beginning toward the bottom of page 10 and continuing through the end of page 11) as evidence that she did indeed push back against PLAs, as we can clearly see that she “asked that the PLA be closely monitored so that MSU can determine if the project was completed on budget or if there were cost escalations,” and “asked that the process be monitored to determine if there were exclusions from the workforce,” but on a board that was 5-3 democrat at the time, this was going to happen anyway.
That’s probably true, but let me point out two little inconvenient facts here. First, toward the top of page 1 of the minutes, immediately following the roll of those present, we see the note:
All actions taken were by unanimous vote of the Trustees present, unless otherwise noted.
Second, at the bottom of page 11 of the minutes, at the conclusion of the Brody Hall Renovation project discussion, we see the note (emphasis in original):
THE BOARD VOTED to approve the recommendation.
Oh, snap. Taken together, these two sentences don’t even permit Foster the cover of a voice vote on passage, as any dissenting vote would have been noted on the record. So, all three “republicans” then on the board (Melanie Foster, Donald Nugent, and Scott Romney) thus voted in lockstep with the five democrats to piss away probably between $7,470,000 and $9,960,000 (if not more) of public money on a labor agreement that they were warned was a union-friendly scam. At best, qui tacet consentire videtur, which is just as damning. This, in my opinion, was a situation where a vote to oppose should have been a gimme for a truly principled fiscal conservative, especially one who’s serious about both her fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of both the university and the public good, and her representation of the values of the grassroots conservatives that elected her to office in the first place.
To bill oneself as a “proven conservative leader” on one’s campaign literature is one thing, but it’s a tad different to actually be one when the chips are down and it’s time to count the votes. To be fair, I don’t think that any of us are so unreasonable as to expect perfection from our elected officials, but I do believe that an explanation is in order in regard to these two very glaring inconsistencies between Melanie Foster’s campaign rhetoric and her actual conduct while in office. For what my opinion is worth, both her lame duck junket to South Africa on public funds and her support-by-vote of the largest publicly-funded PLA in university history stretch beyond imperfection, to the point of misrepresentation.
I think that it’s also fair to ask the question: Are these two incidents are all there is, or are they merely the tip of the iceberg? And you can bet your sweet bippy that others will start asking the same questions in due course, perhaps as early as the tea party pow wow three weekends from now.
A casual glance at either Foster’s campaign website or her campaign FaceBook page also shows a photo-op montage that looks an awful lot like a who’s who of movers and shakers within the Michigan Republican Party, both the establishment and the grassroots. Though I’m not aware of any specific list of endorsements, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find out that many (if not most) of those in the pictures with Melanie have at least tacitly endorsed her campaign, if not done so outright.
Do these people know that the person they’re endorsing has at least twice in her 16+ years on education boards been caught in conduct that is diametrically opposite of that expected from a true fiscal conservative, not to mention in direct violation of her official responsibilities as a trustee? Would they still endorse her if they knew of this, or will they now at least publicly insist on an explanation regarding these inconsistencies?
Right now, all I have are facts and questions. Fortunately, we have some time to learn the answers.