print storyPrint story
backGo back
The following article is reproduced on WAMC Northeast Pirate Network WITHOUT permission.
Probe targeted ex-UAlbany leader
Ethics Commission was investigating Karen Hitchcock before she quit
By KENNETH AARON, Staff writer 
First published: Saturday, February 26, 2005 

ALBANY -- Former University at Albany President Karen Hitchcock was the subject of a state Ethics Commission inquiry before she left the school last June in a cloud of mystery.

 Both Hitchcock and her attorney denied reports in The New York Times on Friday that she wanted to shunt business to an Albany developer in exchange for the creation of an endowed professorship that she would ultimately occupy.

"There is no substance whatsoever to the complaints that I used my position as president of the University at Albany to advance my personal interests," Hitchcock said in a prepared statement.

The developer in question, Walter Uccellini of the Albany-based United Group of Cos., could not be reached for comment.

The company's development arm, United Development Corp., worked on the school's Empire Commons housing complex. Also, its Web site says it is the developer of Fort Orange Village, a Hitchcock-championed plan to combine housing retirees and graduate students.

At one point, Hitchcock wanted to put that housing on the state's Harriman office campus -- a plan that caused friction with city and state officials.

The ethics board had launched a preliminary investigation into that project and another to put UAlbany staff in downtown offices.

The allegations are "not true at all," said Hitchcock's lawyer, Michael Whiteman of Albany law firm Whiteman, Osterman and Hanna.

Hitchcock's departure from the state payroll forced the Ethics Commission to drop its inquiry because only state employees can be sanctioned. Whiteman, however, denied Hitchcock sped her exit to shirk punishment.

She left UAlbany to become principal of Queen's University in Ontario. Principal is equivalent to the president's post of an U.S. school.

Paul Shechtman, the Ethics Commission's chairman, would neither confirm nor deny the Hitchcock report. But the loophole that allows former state employees to escape investigations has been frustrating, he said.

"The fact that you can act unethically and cleanse yourself by walking away makes a mockery of state ethics laws," he said. "It seems to be an all too common occurrence. It's fair to say I'm aware of two in the last month. That strikes me as suggesting that it's hardly uncommon."

In one of the most public examples of the loophole in recent months, a joint investigation by the state attorney general and inspector general found ethical lapses were among the problems in a $30,000 deal that gave a developer exclusive rights along the state canal system. But because the Canal Corp. employees had left state employment, they were beyond the reach of the ethics law.

Shechtman said he has been clanging the bell of reform, speaking with newspaper editorial boards, writing opinion pieces and urging lawmakers and Gov. George Pataki to change the law.

Next week, Ethics Commission officials are scheduled to discuss ethics law issues with the attorney general's office.

After stepping down from UAlbany's presidency, Hitchcock was to become a "university professor," a post that pays $170,000 a year. The title is typically conferred upon former presidents. Whiteman questioned why Hitchcock would have needed to arrange an endowed professorship considering she already had a guaranteed job at UAlbany.

Hitchcock's employment agreement stipulated that she could supplement her pay with outside money. Endowed chairmanships can be used to boost pay levels. They also can cover the cost of travel, lab equipment and time off from teaching to conduct research.

Queen's University officials confirmed Hitchcock alerted them to the Ethics Commission's query before winning the job. "Our experience with her in the months since she has been appointed has confirmed to us the merits of her selection and our complete confidence in her integrity," said a joint statement released by the school's chancellor and chairman. 

Kenneth Aaron can be reached at 454-5515 or by e-mail at aaronk@timesunion.com. Staff writer James M. Odato contributed to this story. 

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.