Richard Whitt, 64, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 17 years and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for the Louisville Courier-Journal, keeled over one day in January and died of a massive heart attack. The AJC didn't even bother to run an obituary. The Courier-Journal said Whitt had been one of the best investigative reporters around.
Ironically, Whitt died just as a book he had authored hit the store shelves. The volume, "Behind the Hedges: Big Money and Power Politics at the University of Georgia," sank from sight almost as soon as it was published. In a brief mention, the AJC termed the volume a rehash of old episodes.
Rehash or not, "Behind the Hedges," a story of wheeling and dealing and plain misconduct at UGA, has all but vanished from the stores and mail-order houses. You'd think someone systematically bought out the book before it could be circulated. Old-timers still remember the strange disappearance of Herman Talmadge's tome, "Segregation and You," that occurred when he ran for his first re-election bid as a U.S. senator in a recently desegregated state. Vanishing books are not new to Georgia.
Too bad Whitt died before he could promote his work. He might have had a best-seller on his hands, though he is bit harsh on UGA President Mike Adams.
Whitt's campus tale contains something for everybody: juicy sex, multimillion-dollar prescription drug deals, Wall Street-level compensation packages and giant but mistreated hero by the name of Vince Dooley. As you may recall, Dr. Adams forced the popular and successful Dooley into retirement as head sports guy at UGA in what must be one of the most ill-conceived personnel moves since Truman fired MacArthur. Dooley's loyal followers, including a majority of the UGA Foundation's board of trustees, were outraged. You could get favorable odds that Adams was a goner as president.
Didn't happen, and therein lies Whitt's tale. We can't do "Behind the Hedges" justice in this space, but here is a sampler that may whet your appetite to read it - if you can find it.
- Senior management at UGA was highly critical of an unfavorable outside audit of Adams' expenses. There may have been good reasons for standing by Adams: According to state records, University Provost Arnett Mace was paid $322,800 in 2008, up $13,500 from his 2007 salary. Vice President Tom Landrum received a 22 percent raise of $41,000 - from $193,550 in 2007 to $235,360 in 2008. This is just the beginning. Executive salaries were jumping while student tuition was skyrocketing and employee layoffs were threatened.
- While university officials stood in the bank teller's line with their cash satchels, Gov. Perdue stepped in and ran off Chancellor Tom Meredith. According to Whitt, "One former regent said the board (of regents) no longer functions independently as required by law. It's run by the governor."
- A flamboyant and wealthy member of the University System Board of Regents, Don Leebern, a once-loyal patron of the Democratic Party, suddenly kicked in $200,000 to the Georgia Republican Party. Whitt wrote, "Maybe that was all it took for Perdue, the champion of morality and 'principle-centered' government, to discover that Don Leebern, beneath the bellicosity and the taste for high living and open adultery, was an acceptable member of the [Board of Regents]."
Leebern also was a close friend of former Gov. Roy Barnes, who said of the businessman's retention as a regent: "I'm loyal to my friends. But I would have dropkicked Don. I'd have brought him in and said, 'Don, you're a friend, but you're radioactive.'"
There is so much more torrid stuff here that an examination might have been performed on Whitt to verify his cause of death. Whitt strikes a thousand sore spots and reignites hatreds that were only beginning to cool.
Sure, a lot of this is old stuff, but the real devilment is in the newly discovered details. The book contains several lessons that might be of use to the next chancellor - or maybe not. Mike Adams is said to be the No. 1 candidate for university system chancellor when the current chancellor Erroll Davis' tenure ends, reportedly in the near future.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.