University looks to clean tarnished image, as Felner pleads guilty

By on January 18, 2010

By Michael Kennedy

On June 20, 2008, armed federal agents jumped out of their black SUVs at the University of Louisville and raided the office of Robert Felner, then-dean of the College of Education and Human Development. The agents left with boxes of documents and computers.
In the months that followed, the public learned of a man who allegedly created a bogus non-profit that he used to funnel $576,000 from U of L, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars from other schools.
“As a whole of the image of the university…I think that our image has been somewhat tarnished after this event,” said Tejas Shastry, a senior political science and philosophy double major.
While U of L received plenty of negative publicity in the media and on Louisville blogs for not noticing the embezzlement as it occurred, U of L spokesman Mark Hebert said it was U of L that tipped the authorities about Felner.
“[Felner] stole money that should have been used to educate the kids,” said Hebert. “He is a very talented man, a very smart man, who just blew it.”
When the agents raided Felner’s office, he had already resigned from U of L and had accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside.
The man charged with leading the CEHD through the fallout of the Felner scandal is Blake Haselton, who has been interim dean for the past year and a half.
There have been a number of external and internal audits, and Haselton said: “None of those indicated that there was any involvement by anybody other than Felner. The responsibility and accountability has been established, and we’ve been moving forward.”
Over the past three years, enrollment at the CEHD has steadily increased, and according to Haselton two-thirds of the university’s increase in enrollment this semester is from the CEHD. Haselton said Felner has not had a significant impact on donations or grants to the college.
According to Haselton, the college’s rankings have not been significantly impacted, since those are mostly based on research dollars and faculty-student ratios.
The teacher education program was recently re-accredited for another seven years, by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. NCATE’s primary recommendation to the college was to improve intercollegiate communication – an issue not directly related to the Felner incident.
To ensure propriety, Haselton said the college has done a lot more internal audits, and has invited university auditors to visit them at any time.
For Haselton, “[Felner] is not something there’s a whole lot of time dwelling about. It’s a matter for the courts that will work its way through the courts in whatever way is appropriate. And we’ve moved on.”
On Jan. 8, Felner pled guilty to nine federal counts, including mail fraud, money laundering, conspiring to impede or impair the Internal Revenue Service and seven counts of tax evasion. If the judge accepts the plea agreement, Felner will serve 63 months in prison, and pay U of L $510,000 in restitution. If the judge rejects the agreement, and Felner goes to trial, he faces a maximum of 75 years in prison.
According to Scott Cox, Felner’s attorney, he decided to plead guilty because of the strong tax evasion case the government had compiled against him.
“[Felner] wanted to put this behind him,” said Cox. “He’d like to be sentenced as quickly as possible.”
As for Haselton, his time at the helm of the CEHD could soon be coming to an end. There’s a national search to find a new dean, and he is not an applicant for the position.
“I just hope, in the future, the university can become more proactive in their hiring process, and make sure that they take the right steps to screen the candidates for the next job,” said Shastry.

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