In announcing his retirement, UCF’s public relations department posted a press release calling John C. Hitt a “Community Hero” — praising his “integrity” and his “efforts to expand” UCF as president.
But now, the same PR team that spent years building Hitt’s credibility is working to call it into question.
Hitt — who is still on UCF payroll as “president emeritus” — went rogue, contradicting UCF’s crisis-management messaging on the misuse of millions of state funds in the Colbourn Hall controversy. Hitt is now defending himself and his former chief financial officer who lost his job in the wake of a state audit exposing the improper funding source.
Hitt expressed how he believes his former CFO Bill Merck was unfairly attacked – “pilloried in the press and on UCF’s own website” – in a letter he wrote to UCF’s outside law firm hired to investigate how the Colbourn Hall controversy could happen. Hitt’s letter alleged Merck was not the only one who knew about the plan to fund construction from a source of funds not meant for that use.
Marchena — who once praised Hitt’s “integrity” as being a level above that of “everyone else” in a UCF press release — is now saying Hitt’s letter “is not accurate, and I don’t find it credible,” according to UCF’s public relations department.
Although Hitt accused Marchena of failing to ask tough questions during a March 2017 BOT presentation “that expressly went over the fact that [the restricted] E&G carry forward funds were used to construct a new building to replace Colbourn Hall,” Marchena did ask questions after the state auditor exposed the improper use of funds in August.
Seemingly blindsided by the auditor’s report, UCF trustees scrambled to work back into compliance, holding a September meeting where Chairman Marchena posed the question whether UCF President Dale Whitaker knew about the misuse of funds. Whittaker said he didn’t know.
“I had no knowledge these funds were being used inappropriately,” Hitt’s successor said to the chairman. “If I had, I would’ve stopped their use.”
In a statement late Friday night to Knight News, Whittaker reaffirmed that he stands by his position.
“My position has never changed: I trusted our former CFO to advise the president and our Board of Trustees about the appropriate use of funds. As provost, I was responsible for the academic planning of the building; the CFO was responsible for the funding,” Whittaker said.
However, in a separate letter written to UCF’s Atlanta-based international law firm Bryan Cave, responsible for investigating the incidents, Merck alleges that Whittaker not only knew about the misappropriated funds but embraced their use for a new Trevor Colbourn Hall while signing off on approvals.
“The proposed use of E&G carry forward funds to construct the new Trevor Colbourn Hall Building was also discussed with and approved by then-Provost and Chief Budget Officer, and now UCF President, Dale Whittaker,” Merck wrote in his letter.
John Hitt agreed Whittaker knew.
“Then Provost and now President Whittaker was well aware of the use of E&G carry forward to fund the project and his handwriting and signature are on multiple documents proving that fact,” said the former president.
Both Hitt and Merck expressed similar thoughts about how UCF treated Merck in the press in their letters to Bryan Cave partner Joseph Burby.
“Instead of defending good, honest, hardworking people who always tried their best to comply with their duties to UCF, some UCF higher-ups gave overly defensive reports to the media in which they denied their participation in a decision that they should have defended from the outset,” Merck said.
The former CFO expressed his concern to Burby about how the law firm’s report could amount to cover-up if it failed to uncover the whole truth.
“I hope that in reporting your findings you report the whole story, and not just the false story–line that ended my 46–year career,” Merck said. “Although my job is gone, other innocent people will be affected by what you report. I pray you report the whole truth and not just what those to whom you report want the UCF community to believe.”
The source of funding and danger of Colbourn Hall
According to Merck, an important reason behind the decision to use the restricted funds was to avoid a catastrophe involving the aging Colbourn Hall. The chief problem at hand was the condition of the old Colbourn Hall, described as a serious, imminent threat – in reference to structure and public health – to students and faculty who used the building.
Merck’s separate letter to Bryan Cave aligns with Hitt’s account, citing the same report on the structural integrity and health concerns as needs to address in the old Colbourn Hall. Merck also referenced President Whittaker’s involvement in approving the building despite drawing from E&G accounts.
“Prior to the board meeting where final approval was given, I discussed the specific funding source with President Hitt. He agreed that we needed to move forward because of the documented health and safety concerns that threatened hundreds of students, faculty, and staff in the old Colbourn Hall,” said Merck.
Merck says he made it known state auditors would have a problem with using these funds.
“Although I felt and advised others that we would likely take an ‘audit hit’ and have to later explain our use of the funds, I felt we were between ‘a rock and a hard place’ and had no other choice. This was a matter affecting the health and safety of students, staff, and faculty. It was a true emergency and President Hitt and Provost/Chief Budget Officer Whittaker agreed that we had to use internal funds to construct a new building,” Merck said.
Calls to state representatives for funding earmarked to renovate the building went unanswered, Hitt said, while the lifespan of Colbourn Hall would soon reach its end.
“In 2013 and 2014, we received reports from independent professional engineers which revealed that the problems were far worse than we had thought. Not only was there a serious mold issue, [but] the structure of the building was deteriorating and, it was reported to me, would soon be so unsafe that it would be uninhabitable,” said Hitt.
Merck, along with Hitt, believed that the imminent danger that Colbourn Hall posed required that it be destroyed and replaced after engineers again reported the insurmountable defects to the building in 2016. According to the former CFO, no one – the Florida Board of Governors, Marchena, Whittaker, and others within the UCF executive administration – interjected to say the expenditure was illegal. Merck believed that was because they all knew it was necessary.
“After an engineering report confirmed that the building lacked structural integrity and was filled with mold – findings that presented grave health and safety concerns – we felt that UCF had no alternative but to fix the problem,” Merck wrote in the letter.
Florida State Statute 1013.74 allows for E&G funds to be used to replace buildings destroyed by a calamity, Merck alleges in the letter. And failure of the building while waiting – potentially for years more – for funds from the state to replace Colbourn Hall would result in millions in physical and collateral damage. A sentiment shared by President Emeritus Hitt.
UCF President Dale Whittaker’s statement to Knight News also reaffirmed a vigilant process moving forward while also dodging the accusations made by two of his peers.
“I have full confidence in the thoroughness of the investigation. The public, legislature and our entire university community deserve accountability and a better way forward. Under my presidency, a situation like this will not happen,” Whittaker said via the UCF public relations department.
“UCF is a centerpiece of academic excellence, and my focus remains on the future of our institution – the incredible teaching, scholarship, and innovation generated by our people. That remains my chief priority,” said Whittaker.
BOT Chairman Marchena’s response reaffirmed his stance that no foul play took place. Marchena claims that President Hitt’s letter to Bryan Cave is not credible.
“At no time were the Trustees collectively, or me as Chairman, apprised that there was anything inappropriate about the use of the funding source for this project,” said Marchena via the same public relations department.
“I was saddened to receive John’s letter. It is not accurate, and I don’t find it credible. Our Board and President Whittaker will continue working to address the issues raised by Trevor Colbourn Hall.”
Whittaker made the immediate decision to separate the responsibility of the individual who once held the pen to new money and construction for UCF as if to remedy a corrupt position. Merck’s letter took issue with how he was labeled as a scapegoat.
“Some have falsely asserted that I acted without their knowledge. I gave my heart and soul to UCF. Although I have been falsely accused by some of those now associated with the university, I still feel a strong allegiance to it,” said Merck, who went on to list four documents that allegedly reflect involvement.
“During the ‘Golden Era’ at UCF, when President Hitt was in charge, doing the right thing mattered. I hope it still does.”
Retired UCF President John C. Hitt maintained that the use of E&G funds was an open, known fact that proceded due to minimal guidance from the State of Florida on how to use the leftover money to fix a deteriorating Colbourn Hall built in 1974. The president claimed no one at UCF intended to use the funds to fulfill personal need nor to knowingly violate any rule with the use of the funds which allegedly was noted in numerous documents.
“The use of E&G funds to finance the project was specifically noted in a number of reports, including the Trevor Colbourn Hall Building Program which is signed by myself, Provost Whitaker, and many others,” said Hitt in his letter.
The project moved forward as “certainly no clear guidance from the Board of Governors,” their peers, or even UCF’s General Counsel arose, according to the letter.
“Thus, being cognizant of my obligations to act in the best interests of UCF, I told Merck and Lee Kernek that there was no other option and we should proceed using E&G carry forward to approve the use of E&G carry with plans to replace the old building with a new one, the extent we needed to do so,” according to Hitt’s letter.
The 26-year-long leader of campus alleged that while both Whittaker and Marchena condoned the use of E&G funds, it was never concealed and remained available to anyone who might ask for details on not just the Trevor Colbourn Hall project, but projects in general – pulled from carry forward or otherwise.
“Moving forward with the Trevor Colbourn Hall project saved UCF and the State millions of dollars and was the only financially responsible route to travel,” Hitt said to the law firm.
“[M]ost importantly from my perspective, I and everyone that worked with and for me, always acted with the ‘best interests of UCF being their objective and no one – no one – intentionally did anything wrong or engaged in actions that were designed for their personal benefit. We absolutely did not think there was any legal or ethical prohibition against the project or the use of the funds designated for it and we did not fail to report anything that, even now looking back, I think should have been reported.”
This is a developing story, stay tuned for updates.