A probe into the "misuse" of $38 million in operating funds to build a campus administrative hall claimed its third casualty Tuesday with the resignation of University of Central Florida President Dale Whittaker.
The irony is, Whittaker’s transgression may be more bad timing than bad intent in a misappropriation that has spurred some lawmakers to call for a review of how all 12 universities have spent $606 million on 37 unfinished projects and are asking for $733 million more in capital improvement funds in next year’s budget request.
One of those legislators, House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, acknowledged in a statement that Whittaker’s offer to step down from his post, which pays $506,000 annually, is more about leadership than guilt.
"I believe President Whittaker was placed in his position at an inopportune time and much of what occurred was already underway," Leek said.
Whittaker, a former UCF provost, became president in July – a month before the revelations surfaced – following President John Hitt’s retirement. However, both he and Hitt had signed reports submitted by former UCF Chief Financial Officer William Merck, who resigned in August.
"My reason for doing this is so the relationship between UCF and the Legislature can be renewed," Whittaker said in a letter, noting he set forth three goals in August – to support all investigations, implement reforms to "ensure no such incident happens again" and restore "the public’s trust in UCF."
"However," he wrote, "to fully implement my goal of restoring confidence in UCF by state government leaders, it has been made clear to me that one additional step is needed."
That, Whitaker added, is his resignation.
"While there are several who shoulder more of the blame for the improper spending that occurred at UCF, President Whittaker knows ultimate responsibility rests with the executive," House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in a statement.
UCF, in Orlando, is Florida’s largest university with 69,000 students and 13,000 employees. The school maintains it creates or sustains 112,000 "additional jobs" and generates $8 billion in annual economic activity.
State auditors in August revealed UCF had misappropriated $38 million from a carry-forward account in its operational funding over a four-year span to build its 137,000-square-foot Trevor Colbourn Hall.
During an August meeting of the Florida Board of Governors (BOG), which oversees the university system, Whittaker acknowledged "improper use" of the funds. He said UCF replaced the money and took steps to prevent recurrence, beginning with Merck’s resignation and hiring Bryan Cave Leighton & Paisner of Atlanta to investigate.
Former House Speaker Richard Corcoran was unsatisfied. In one of his last acts as Speaker, he appointed Oliva to determine who was "aware of and conspired in this misuse of public funds."
Oliva instructed the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee to investigate. The panel has summoned 14 UCF officials, including Whittaker, to testify. The House Higher Education Appropriations and Higher Education & Career Readiness subcommittees are also examining the matter.
Bryan Cave Leighton & Paisner’s probe indicated $84.7 million in operating funds were used or earmarked by UCF for construction projects, in violation of state policy which requires such money be used for instruction, research, libraries, student services and maintenance.
That $84.7 million includes $38.2 million UCF spent to build Colbourn Hall, $13.8 million for eight other projects, and $32.7 million shifted into capital improvements account but not used, the report said.
As a result of the revelations, the BOG called for all state universities to audit capital improvement spending over the last decade, especially their "carry forward" funds.
On Feb. 13, House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, proposed cutting funding for UCF projects and threatened to shutter the university.
"We are obligated not to fund organizations that refuse to steward money in an appropriate way," he said. "If it was a private business that I owned, I would shut it down."
One day later, UCF Board of Trustees Chairman Marcos Marchena resigned.
Fine’s comments drew sharp rebukes from Orlando Democrat Reps. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani on Tuesday, which, ironically, was "UCF Day" at the capitol.
"I hope (Whittaker’s) decision ends the Legislature’s obsession with UCF so we can move on and work together to make Florida’s state university system our nation’s best," tweeted Smith, a UCF alumni, thanking Whittaker for protecting students from an "overzealous Republican Legislature looking for excuses to punish public universities."
"My only hope is the Florida Legislature moves on from attacking UCF and, instead, applies the same passion for transparency to private corporations, too," Eskamani tweeted.
Within hours of Whittaker’s resignation, UCF student Sarah Frost created a "Keep Dale Whittaker as UCF President" Change.org petition. As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, it had more than 3,625 signatures.