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"Fundraising drive' redefined

A little red Corvette has prompted a criminal charge at Florida Atlantic University, but not necessarily a new standard of ethics. Even as a former university vice president faces possible prison time for her alleged role in steering $42,000 in university foundation money toward a shiny new car for retiring FAU president Anthony Catanese, not everyone appreciates the dishonor the episode has brought the institution.

Consider these reactions, as reported by the Palm Beach Post. Foundation chairman Herb Gimelstob: "I respect law enforcement, but if they put as much time and money into stopping drug dealers as they do into this, we'd be a lot better off." Foundation member Monte Friedkin: "I've never seen anything so stupid in my life." FAU trustee Llwyd Ecclestone, even prior to the charge: "What do you want to do, shoot a dead horse?"

Forget about whether vice president Carla Coleman violated the law. What the university and its former president did last year was wrong, dead wrong. They funneled $42,000 in donated money through an interior design firm, under the pretense of work at the presidential mansion, only to deliver a check to Catanese's wife for the car. Just three weeks ago, Catanese finally acknowledged as much, returning the $42,000 to FAU. His belated action may have spared him indictment, but not disgrace. For months, he told the Post and the public a lie about the car.

Fundraising foundations are vital to the life of every university, and their ability to support their institutions is tied to the trust they enjoy with potential donors. Unfortunately, the relationship between foundation giving and presidential perks is only expanding. Earlier this year, legislators tried to make a political statement by limiting presidential salaries at public universities to $225,000. But the fine print is that foundations are free, and encouraged, to pick up the rest of the tab.

To his credit, FAU's new president, former lieutenant governor Frank Brogan, has worked quickly to bring more accountability to foundation spending and clearer guidelines on perks for presidents. In a state with 11 public universities all struggling with their finances, the red Corvette is a glaring symbol of the kind of excess the state can't afford.