Sometimes a college president’s road to malfeasance ends not with a punch line to a bitter joke, but in genuine tragedy. Such is the case of Ben Johnson, the former president of Peru (Nebraska) State College, who offed himself on April 12.
The walls of his handcrafted house of cards were falling down all around him. In 2009, a year after his retirement, he paid a $1200 fine to the state for failing to disclose a deferred compensation deal, to the tune of nearly one-half million dollars, he’d negotiated with Peru State’s foundation. A deal supposedly unreported to the Nebraska State College Board of Trustees.
But the paltry fine was nothing compared to the revelations that came to light in the weeks leading up to his suicide. State auditors had uncovered that Johnson used about $43,400 from a university-related account to pay personal bills. The account was funded by profits from the college’s book store funneled into a “presidential discretionary” account through the same foundation. Apparently, Johnson had access to the account even after his presidency ended. According to the Journal-Star.com, the account remained open until Johnson himself closed it in 2010—two years after his retirement.
Better late than never, though, Nebraskan state officials finally did get around to looking into Johnson’s “discretionary” spending, and found, in addition to the clothes, meals, entertainment and travel Johnson helped himself to, Johnson had other things, of a more indiscrete variety, to keep secret. The Journal-Star.com continues the story:
During the investigation, [State Auditor] Foley’s staff also discovered problems with the resume Johnson used when applying for the Peru State presidency:
* Johnson was found guilty of a felony — making an untrue statement and/or omission to state material facts to investors — in 1989 and spent almost nine months in a California county jail in the early 1990s, according to the audit.
According to Foley, documents show Johnson was found guilty of selling limited partnerships improperly in excess of $100,000.
* Johnson’s Jan. 28, 1999, cover letter seeking the Peru State job was on Thomas College letterhead. Johnson signed the letter as a vice president at the school, but he had been terminated from Thomas College in Thomasville, Ga., two months earlier.
Johnson later filed a civil suit against Thomas College for breach of contract. The school responded that Johnson had misrepresented his qualifications in applying for the job.
A court dismissed that suit in October 1999, four months after Johnson was hired at Peru.
Former Peru State College President Ben Johnson was a serial conman, thief, and liar. As jaundiced a view as I might hold of colleges presidents, most of them, even I will acknowledge, cannot boast of possessing such a resume. It’s probably true that more than a few have a handful of questionable expenses charged to their discretionary accounts, but it is also true that many expenses that look “questionable”—meals, travel, mostly—really are expected and job-related costs an honest college president must incur. No, Ben Johnson is a poster boy for malfeasance in higher education to be sure, but not only presidential malfeasance. This time the rot really and truly started at the top, with the Nebraska State College Board of Trustees who apparently did no diligence, let alone due diligence, in hiring Johnson back in 1999. The rot also permeated the foundation’s board, which did not properly oversee foundation funds, if indeed it exercised any oversight at all.
I am flabbergasted no reference checks undertaken at the time of Johnson’s hiring revealed his termination from Thomas College and the reasons for it. I am stunned that no background checks revealed his conviction as a felon and his time in stir.
With nary a mention of his crimes or his sad demise, the Peru State College web site has nothing but kind words, and many of them, for the late Ben Johnson. Apparently his tenure there helped turn around a failing campus. Too bad there was nobody around to do the same for the people who held the campus and its funds in their trust.
Dear Readers: I would like to explore Johnson’s life and work more; if you knew or worked with him at Peru State, Thomas College or elsewhere, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks.