Viewpoint Finally, a win for UConn coach Randy Edsall
STORRS — For those who wonder if UConn football coach Randy Edsall can still win, the answer Thursday would be a resounding yes.
A legal case that dragged on far longer than it should have, a case that never should have happened in the first place, ended in stinging defeat for the Office of State Ethics’ Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board.
It ended with Corey Edsall keeping his job as tight ends coach.
From the beginning the ethics board tried to play the nepotism card, and for those less concerned with the facts or those with an agenda, it was an easy piñata to whack. Father Randy hires son Corey as tight ends coach! Nepotism! Nepotism!
“At oral argument counsel for the defendants stated that ‘this case is about nepotism,’ ” Judge Joseph Shortall wrote in vacating the board’s ruling against Edsall. “To the contrary, what this case is about is whether Randy Edsall or the university violated a specific provision of the code … which prohibits a state employee from using his position to obtain financial gain for himself or a member of his immediate family.”
Near the end of his 41-page decision, Shortall delivered his rebuke of the board, calling its decision that Corey Edsall would have to give up his job in January “a clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion.”
From the beginning this had the strong scent of an agenda.
Maybe somebody thought they were being a great citizen activist. Maybe somebody thought they were being a hero in the war against the evil of big-time college sports. Maybe somebody had an ego bigger than his brain.
When the state ethics board is at its most prudent and pragmatic it serves as a firm, guiding force. Show an entity what it is doing wrong. Get that entity in line to where the board is ethically comfortable. If the entity refuses to get in line, then act. The board should not be Judge Judy. The board certainly is not a lawmaking body. The state legislature is. If the ethics board doesn’t like a law, effect change through our elected officials.
The state code of ethics doesn’t forbid family members from working in the same department. Be clear on that. It always was about whether an employee used his position for the financial gain of a family member and Shortall makes it clear Edsall did not.
As a journalist, as a columnist, my first instinct ordinarily is to side with those in charge of promoting ethical conduct, especially when dealing with the crazy money being thrown around in major college sports. My position on this one from the start was the opposite.
Back when this case surfaced nearly two years ago, I portrayed ethics officials as going after Corey Edsall in a “highly nuanced and far-fetched way of shooting fish in a barrel with a semi-automatic.”
They still missed.
The board, for reasons counterintuitive to fairness, would go to great lengths to try to assert that Randy Edsall became a state employee on Dec. 28, 2016, instead of Jan. 3, 2017. That’s a difference of six days, with the New Year’s Day weekend mixed in. That’s how hard the ethics board was trying to thread this needle and stop a qualified young coach from getting a job that paid $95,000, a pittance in the world of major college football. It reached long and far to a case in Michigan from 1968 to try to prove its definition of a state employee and, in Shortall’s view, failed spectacularly.
“The board’s sole authority for its interpretation is a Michigan case that held that a person who had signed a contract to teach in a public school system and was then drafted into the military service before the effective date of his employment nevertheless became an employee of the school system the date he signed the contract.”
Those six days were so important to the board because a state employee cannot help in a family member’s hire. It was during that time that former UConn COO Beth Goetz emailed Randy Edsall asking about an offer to Corey Edsall, about his salary, job title, moving expenses and temporary housing. Shortall wrote, “The parties agree that only if Randy Edsall was a ‘state employee’ on Jan. 1, 2017 was his involvement in setting the terms of Corey’s employment a violation of the (ethics statue) i.e. an illegal use of his public position to obtain financial gain for his son.”
Even before he got hired, Edsall had made it clear to UConn he’d like to hire his son. Kimberly Fearney, UConn’s director of compliance and ethics liaison, asked state ethics officials on Dec. 22 — four days before firing Bob Diaco — for a non-binding opinion on a hypothetical hire and got a tentative OK. UConn didn’t tell them it was Randy Edsall. Maybe this upset the ethics board. Maybe they felt like they were getting big-footed. UConn would argue the name shouldn’t define the decision.
From there it got stupid. There were statements made that if Corey Edsall moved from tight ends coach to another position that would help him get a better job elsewhere. There were questions that maybe Randy Edsall would throw to the tight ends more to help his son.
Edsall submitted a conflict-of-interest disclosure. UConn put together a seven-step management plan where Edsall could not give his son raises or make decisions on bonuses. The only raises could be ones collectively bargained with the school union. Former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was appointed as Corey Edsall’s immediate supervisor and Lashlee himself had a set three-year deal. The ethics board looked at all that, insisted Edsall was still his son’s supervisor and to deny it was “so absurd as to be self-refuting.”
Shortall made note of that absurd assertion and ruled that Edsall and the university went beyond what was required.
“The university appealed the board’s ruling because we were confident that UConn carefully followed state statute and well-established management practices in instances such as this,” UConn president Susan Herbst said in a statement. “We are gratified that the judge unambiguously agreed.”
The ethics lawyers could appeal Shortall’s ruling. Let’s hope they do not. This already got crazy enough back in May when, in the closing hours of the regular session, the state legislature passed an amendment attached to an unrelated bill to allow immediate family members to work in the same department within state higher education under certain conditions. Leaders from both parties took Edsall’s side, and those amendments are called “rats.” We don’t need rats. We need prudent, non-grandstanding ethics officials.
The cynical among us would assert Edsall’s victory merely won father and son the opportunity to keep coaching a flailing football program that hasn’t had a winning season since Edsall left for Maryland following the 2010 season. The irony is that in Edsall’s lowest moment since returning — the late loss to UMass on Saturday — he could look across the field and realize coach Mark Whipple’s son Spencer is on his staff. The Whipples endured no two-year ethics ordeal.