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
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
Next week, Ethics Commission
officials are scheduled to discuss ethics law issues with the attorney
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer James M.
Odato contributed to this story.