LITTLE ROCK, Ark.
Former University of Central Arkansas president Lu Hardin said Monday that he was hooked on the slots the first time he played them more than a decade ago, and that his gambling compulsion and mounting debts led him to lie to school trustees to tap into bonus money he had been promised.
U.S. District Judge James Moody sentenced the one-time rising political star to five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service, but no prison time. Hardin, 60, pleaded guilty earlier this year to falsifying a document that persuaded trustees to give him early access to a $300,000 bonus so he could pay off gambling debts.
Moody said he was convinced Hardin was "genuinely remorseful and humiliated" by his own actions. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a sentence of nine to 12 months in prison, but Moody was not bound by that recommendation.
A major factor in Hardin's reduced sentence was his cooperation on a separate federal investigation. Hardin has spoken to the FBI and agreed to testify if the investigation, which a prosecutor would not detail, leads to any charges. An FBI spokesman also declined to comment.
After a career as an Arkansas state senator and the state's higher education director, Hardin became president of the Conway university in 2002. During a six-year tenure, he oversaw dramatic growth in the university's enrollment, endowment and prestige. Trustees approved the $300,000 bonus in full public view.
Hardin said years before becoming UCA president, he played the slots for the first time while on vacation with his wife, Mary, and immediately fell in love with them.
"I developed a very serious problem," he told the court.
Only his wife knew about the thousands of dollars of gambling debts he racked up, Hardin said. To pay them off, he made what he called a "horrendous mistake" by forging letters to persuade trustees that he could draw early on the bonus, which was supposed to have been paid to him over five years, according to federal court documents.
"This conduct was not up to my standards," he said. "It was an aberration, but that doesn't justify anything."
Hardin's attorney, Chuck Banks, said his client is a "model person" who paid back the almost $200,000 he collected from the scheme on his own. He argued that Hardin's history of public service and his past medical problems, including a melanoma that left him blind in his right eye, merited leniency.
Moody sided with Banks. Although Hardin's actions were criminal, he had a history of good behavior and he didn't believe Hardin would commit another crime, Moody said. As part of his community service, Hardin will be required to continue attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings and to teach classes about fraud.
Hardin was president of UCA for six years before he resigned in 2008 after the scandal broke. He received a much-criticized $670,000 contract buyout, and became president of Palm Beach Atlantic University in June 2009, but resigned from that job a week before pleading guilty in March.
His successor at UCA, Allen C. Meadors, also resigned under a cloud. Meadors failed to tell trustees that a $700,000 offer to renovate his university home came with strings attached. The food service company Aramark made the offer contingent upon its contract being renewed for seven years.
Hardin was a Democratic state senator who ran unsuccessfully for his party's nomination for U.S. Senate in 1996. That December, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee made him the state's interim higher education director. He became the permanent director the following April.
Hardin defected to the Republican Party and was considered a possible candidate for governor in 2014. After the bonus scandal broke -- UCA trustees were also criticized for approving the bonuses -- Hardin said he wouldn't rule out eventually running for governor.
After pleading guilty, he surrendered his law license and lost his right to vote.
"It's sad for everybody involved that he got himself into that position," Gov. Mike Beebe said after Hardin's plea in March. "I always thought he would never even entertain making up a document or doing anything like what apparently he's admitted he's done."
Beebe declined to comment through a spokesman Monday.
Central Arkansas is located in Conway, about 30 miles north of Little Rock, and has an enrollment of about 11,000. Its enrollment and endowment made steady growth during Hardin's tenure, and the university board of trustees awarded Hardin the $300,000 bonus -- to be paid out over five years -- in full public view.
Hardin apologized Monday for hurting the university. "To this day, I love UCA," he said.
A university spokesman declined to comment.