LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Former University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin, once a rising political figure who had considered running for governor in 2014, pleaded guilty to federal felony wire fraud and money laundering charges Monday.
Hardin, an attorney, faces up to 20 years in prison after he admitted engineering a scheme in which he generated fraudulent documents to create the impression UCA administrators allowed him to draw early on a $300,000 bonus awarded by university trustees. Prosecutors said Hardin, 59, was in financial trouble, unable to pay down loans he took out from various creditors.
Hardin's attorney, Chuck Banks, said it's possible Hardin could avoid prison, though prosecutors made no promises and sentencing will be up to the judge. A sentencing date was not immediately set.
In his plea deal, Hardin admitted fraudulently receiving $198,000 of the bonus money in 2008, which he returned after the bonus became public knowledge.
"Public office is not a blank check to self-enrichment for those in power," U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Thyer said Monday. Thyer said no one else will be charged.
Hardin resigned Aug. 28, 2008, and was hired by as president of Palm Beach Atlantic University on June 30, 2009. He abruptly resigned from the Florida job last week.
"Our current administration has made great strides in creating a stronger, more accountable and transparent university," UCA board Chairman Scott Roussel said Monday. "We hope today's news brings to a close that chapter in UCA's history and we have moved forward as a university."
Hardin was accompanied by his wife and adult son when he entered U.S. District James Moody's courtroom Monday morning. He had waived an appearance before a grand jury and agreed to plead guilty to the two charges.
Moody cautioned Hardin that with his plea he "will have the status of being a felon," meaning he could lose his law license, in addition to his rights to vote and own firearms.
Hardin told Moody he understood and repeatedly said he accepted responsibility for his actions.
The wire fraud conviction carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The money laundering conviction carries a top sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Hardin will have to check in with federal authorities in Florida when he returns home and he'll have to surrender his passport.
Prosecutors did not say how Hardin fell into debt, but Thyer said that would be addressed in the presentencing report.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Harris said Hardin wrote a letter over the signatures of three UCA administrators to gain access to the $300,000 bonus money.
"He intended to deceive the Board of Trustees with this letter," Harris said.
As a result of the letter, Hardin received $198,000 on May 29, 2008, according to the charging documents. Harris said Hardin made a $12,000 payment and two $15,000 payments to creditors "outside the state of Arkansas." The balance of the $300,000 wasn't addressed in court.
Hardin was a Democratic state senator who ran unsuccessfully ran for his party's nomination for U.S. Senate in 1996. That December, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee named him interim head of the Arkansas Higher Education Department, and the following April the interim tag was dropped.
Hardin, who later switched allegiances to the Republican Party, was named president of UCA in 2002 with a strong recommendation from Huckabee.
Huckabee said Monday he still considered Hardin a friend.
"Of course I'm disappointed by his actions and saddened for Lu and his family. I'm sure there is a long line of people who will rain condemnation on him, but I've always preferred shorter lines. So I'll form one for his real friends to still love him, pray for him and stand with him when he needs us the most," Huckabee said.
Hardin, who was treated for eye cancer while at UCA, faced criticism from faculty who were angry he had informed the board his deferred compensation package did not have to be voted on in public. Hardin put the information in a memo bearing the typed names of three university vice presidents.
At the time, Hardin said the agreement should have been discussed in public.
"If there's one thing I take out of this, it's that in the future to do what I already knew and that's to err on the side of disclosure," Hardin said in July 2008. "I'm very disgusted that I hesitated at all in thinking there was an exemption."
After the scandal broke, Hardin said he wouldn't rule out a run for governor, an office he'd considered seeking earlier in his career.
"Is there a possibility that at that particular point in my life it could be something that could occur? Yes," Hardin said. "It is not an ambition of mine. It's not something I'm preparing for. I fully expect to end my career at UCA," Hardin said in July 2008.
Hardin announced his resignation a month later, walking away with a $670,162 buyout off his five-year contract.
Gov. Mike Beebe said he was taken aback by Hardin's fall.
"It's sad for everybody involved that he got himself into that position," Beebe said. "I always thought he would never even entertain making up a document or doing anything like what apparently he's admitted he's done."
Associated Press writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.