Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

CU in Court

Sam Riddle was right.

About one thing, at least. Back in June, the shoot-from-the-lip Riddle complained that his $250-an-hour consulting contract with then-secretary of state Victoria Buckley would not have been subject to the same scrutiny if he'd made the deal with a white man.

And in fact, while Riddle's seven-month, $90,000 contract attracted headlines as well as a state audit, a bigger sweetheart deal at the University of Colorado escaped almost unnoticed. This time the person making the deal was a white man -- and the consultant collecting the dough was a woman.

In October 1997, Fran Raudenbush was hired by the University of Colorado Foundation, Inc. -- ostensibly an independent fundraising arm of the university -- as a thirty-hour-a-week consultant charged with pushing the Total Learning Environment initiative, a "blueprint for building the CU of the future" and a pet project of CU president John Buechner. To this role, Raudenbush brought her expertise as a lobbyist for the Union Pacific, her cozy connections with the historically cozy foundation (she was sitting on its board at the time of her appointment), and even closer ties to Buechner, a friend.

"Public institutions of higher education like CU can no longer rely on the traditional funding sources and budgeting strategies to support the overall mission of the university," Raudenbush wrote in one of her first briefing papers. "We must look at new markets for our offerings and expand current activities outside of TABOR limitations to generate funds." Specifically, the institution of higher learning would have to look at the lowbrow world of business. For example, one TLE proposal would charge corporate fat cats $25,000 a year for the privilege of sitting on a Board of Visitors to President Buechner. But Raudenbush wasn't focusing simply on stroking CEOs' already considerable egos; last December she outlined plans to pursue corporate partnerships with such companies as Qwest, US West and Hewlett-Packard, which would give the companies access to university expertise and let them host university events. (This Nobel Prize for Physics brought to you by Lockheed Martin -- if it ever gets its yards/meters straight.)

But since Raudenbush was working for the private foundation, her ideas rarely surfaced in public.

Last spring, the Colorado Daily began digging into the foundation's ties to the Total Learning Environment -- and found itself totally blocked. Because Raudenbush was technically employed by the foundation, its attorneys said, her records were not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act. But TLE is a CU program, and CU officials had already acknowledged that Raudenbush was playing a key role in the initiative. That was enough to send the Daily to the nonprofit foundation's most recent IRS 990 filings. On the page where it was supposed to list its "five highest-paid independent contractors for professional services," Raudenbush's name did not appear. Three days later, the foundation sent a revised copy of the six-month-old form to the Daily, blaming the flawed version on its accountants. This revision contained only one major change: Raudenbush's name, title and compensation were now included.

The revision described Raudenbush as a "fundraising consultant" -- although in a foundation brochure published a year before, the words "Executive Consultant to the President, University of Colorado at Boulder" appeared under her picture.

Finally, on May 28, the paper filed suit against both CU and the foundation, asking for access to documents regarding TLE and Raudenbush's contract, claiming that the university was trying to prevent public access to information about "significant management and operational activities" by shifting some tasks to the foundation. The case was scheduled for a hearing in Boulder District Court on July 9.

But on June 24, the foundation suddenly released over 7,000 documents from Raudenbush's files -- as a courtesy, the foundation's attorney said. In a return courtesy, the Daily dropped its suit -- but not its investigation.

Among other things, those documents revealed that Raudenbush's initial $115,000 contract had been extended, and her hours increased, until the foundation was paying her $141,000 a year -- more than the majority of the university's deans were each earning. They also showed that Buechner's office was a party to Raudenbush's contract; in fact, the agreement was made "at the request of the President's Office of the University of Colorado," which clearly qualified it as a public document. The July 21, 1998, extension of the "Memorandum of Understanding" between Raudenbush and the foundation had come from Buechner himself; should either the foundation or Raudenbush consider terminating the contract, Buechner was to be consulted.

On Tuesday, both Denver dailies published small items noting that the foundation had not renewed Raudenbush's contract, which expired October 1. (She's reportedly being considered for a post with the governor's new technology institute.) Other than larger stories on June 25, which both reported the Daily dropping its suit in exchange for some foundation documents, that's about all the attention Raudenbush's deal has received from the mainstream media.

This summer, Buechner had told CU's official mouthpiece, Silver and Gold Record, that Raudenbush's contract would not be extended because TLE's $2.4 billion fundraising scheme -- "a process to prepare yourself for the unforeseen," he said -- was up and running. But in the meantime, the initiative will require more than $200 million in state funds this fiscal year alone -- and CU's president wasn't telling the Daily anything. In early September, after two Daily reporters attempted to question Buechner about TLE, Raudenbush and former CU spokesman David Grimm, who'd been wrongly labeled a leak, the journalists were banned from a CU Board of Regents meeting. That, of course, is the group that is supposed to govern CU -- but the regents had never been consulted about Raudenbush's hiring.

On September 28, a front-page Daily editorial listed the fifteen questions it would like Buechner to answer. Some of them involved just how close his relationship was with Raudenbush -- right down to a specific trip to Washington, D.C., this past February. Most, however, focused on the nature of Raudenbush's contract with the foundation and the university's failure to acknowledge the connections. "The Daily has done all it can to bring these matters into the light of day," the paper concluded. "It is up to the regents -- and to Colorado's taxpayers -- to take it from here."

But editor Pamela White, who wrote many of the Daily's stories, isn't holding her breath: So far, the regents haven't shown much inclination to get their hands dirty, and the dailies continue to give the story a pass. "At the very least, the regents need to address the issue of the Open Records Act," she says. "Our concern is that they're going to get away with this -- and that CU and the taxpayers will have to pay the price."

If there's one thing CU doesn't want, it's for the legislature to start poking into its affairs. Several regents still resent the rough treatment lawmakers gave former CU president Judith Albino; in contrast, the smooth-talking Buechner has gotten the kid-glove treatment from journalists and legislators alike.

Colorado State Statute 23-5-112 (3) allows the state auditor to audit any public agency -- such as the secretary of state's office -- or quasi-public agency, unless it's a nonprofit that's "entirely separate." Under that statute, the state auditor could audit Buckley's contract with Riddle -- which it did, finding that while it was questionable, it was still legal. But also under that statute, the state auditor could audit Raudenbush's contract with Buechner, since it clearly violated the "entirely separate" language. And while that contract, too, may have been perfectly legal, CU's behavior is completely questionable. What else don't they want the auditor to look at?

Yes, Sam Riddle was right (and I would have told him so if he hadn't hung up on me on deadline morning). Raudenbush's contract was never scrutinized the way his was. And it should have been.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun