Why did college board's chairman accuse Lars Hafner of forgery?

Published March 3, 2013

Five years ago, Lars Hafner was riding high. After 22 years as a St. Petersburg College administrator and 12 years as a Democratic state legislator from Pinellas County, he was picked to be the new president of Manatee Community College.

Hafner earned praise and raises — until last summer, when the college's board chairman accused him of forgery. The board voted 5-2 to call in investigators. By October he was out of a job.

"It's the wildest and craziest story," the still-unemployed Hafner said.

The most interesting part is what happened with the forgery allegation. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded there was nothing to prosecute. The reason: The man whose signature Hafner was accused of forging said he had given Hafner permission to do it.

But that's the exact opposite of what the board's chairman, Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff, said while under oath during the FDLE investigation.

Beruff testified that he had talked with the man whose name Hafner had signed, and the man said he did not give Hafner permission to sign his name. An attorney Beruff hired gave identical testimony.

What Beruff and his attorney said was a lie, according to the man whose signature is at issue, former college board chairman Steve Harner, who owns the Crow's Nest restaurant in Venice.

Harner says he told Beruff, Beruff's attorney and the FDLE agents the same thing: Hafner had his permission to sign his name to routine documents. This document, a grant application, fit that description. He remains upset that Beruff used his name to oust Hafner.

"This is what happens when you get a political appointee who's not putting the best interests of the college first," said Harner, who like Beruff is a Republican. "The bottom line is, Carlos Beruff had a vendetta against Lars Hafner."

Not true, said Beruff, who says he spent $9,000 pursuing the evidence before he went public.

"I would never falsely accuse anyone," he said. Politics had nothing to do with it, he said, adding, "(Gov.) Rick Scott didn't even know this was going on." As for Hafner, "it's not like I don't like the guy. But you have standards of conduct that you have to meet."

Beruff founded Medallion Homes in 1984. He has donated thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and served on Scott's transition team. In 2008 then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the Manatee Community College Board, after Hafner had already been hired.

Hafner's primary assignment was to convert the two-year college into one offering four-year degrees. He persuaded the board to change the name to State College of Florida, which ticked off veteran faculty and some Manatee County residents.

He made other missteps, such as trying to get the college to buy him a $70,000 Cadillac right after tuition went up. Overall, though, board members were pleased, awarding him a five-year contract.

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Still, Hafner the Ph.D. repeatedly ran afoul of Beruff the hard-headed businessman, mostly over the budget. Hafner contends their conflict began when Beruff tried to steer an off-campus project to land near where he was developing. Beruff denies that.

One of Hafner's big projects was creating an on-campus charter school for middle and high school students. To pay for it, in 2010 the college sent in an application — apparently signed by Harner — for a $325,000 state grant, which was approved.

A year passed, during which Scott appointed six new board members and they elected Beruff chairman. Then Hafner's secretary quit and brought Beruff a document that she said showed Hafner had practiced forging Harner's signature.

Beruff hired the college's former attorney to advise him. Beruff tracked down the grant application and flew a handwriting expert to Tallahassee to compare the signatures. He also had coffee with Harner at the Crow's Nest to ask him about it.

Then Beruff met with Hafner to urge him to resign or else. According to Hafner, Beruff said, "I don't like you. I don't trust you. I want you out of here. If you don't, I'm going to destroy your career." Hafner denied forging the signature and refused to quit.

Beruff recalls the meeting this way: "I confronted him in my office and I said, 'Why don't you just resign?' ... I said, 'Look, this could ruin your career. Why don't you go on with your life?' But he said, 'I've never forged anyone's name in my life.'"

That's when Beruff took his allegation public. Hafner blasted him for running a witch hunt. Several contentious board meetings followed where the faculty senate backed Hafner and crowds of students chanted "Let Lars lead!" But even after the FDLE report cleared Hafner, the board pursued his ouster, so ultimately Hafner agreed to quit in a $363,000 settlement.

The FDLE is not investigating whether anyone committed perjury, a spokeswoman said. Beruff argues Harner changed his story to help Hafner, explaining, "Lars could be very charming."

That infuriates Harner, who contends Beruff' damaged the college's reputation as well as his own. "I felt like I was maligned," the restaurateur said.

Last month, the board hired a new president — not an educator like Hafner, but Hafner's budget director. Beruff likes her, and says he has no regrets: "I just did what I thought was right."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.