Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s inexplicable and inexcusable reappointment of Donald (Don) Leebern Jr. to the Board of Regents this year (Executive Order issued on January 1, 2012) proves dirty politics are still alive in the University of Georgia System.
Leebern has served on the Board, which oversees the University System of 35 member universities and colleges, since 1991. If he serves his entire new seven-year term, he will remain a regent until Jan. 1, 2019. Leebern is known as one of the University’s most generous financial contributors. But he is, perhaps, more noted for his roles in various controversies while serving as a regent. Several have shown a shameful and reckless pattern of conduct.
Leebern has had an ongoing romantic relationship with former University head gymnastics coach, Suzanne Yoculan, despite the fact that he is legally married to another woman. That’s not exactly being good role models to the students Leebern serves as a regent and Yoculan coached at the University. Their relationship even led to National Collegiate Athletic Association/Southeastern Conference sanctions while Yoculan was still the Bulldogs coach, though she only drew a reprimand from the University by then-athletics director Damon Evans. Accompanied by Leebern, Yoculan took six team members on a trip to New York shortly after their NCAA eligibility expired on a jet owned by Leebern, a violation of an NCAA rule forbidding the provision of "extra benefits" to athletes who have run out of eligibility.
Leebern used his iron-fist influence as a regent to help get Michael Adams the University president’s job when Adams was the least qualified of those considered for the position. And Leebern has helped Adams retain his job when he should have long ago been fired for any of a long list of reasons. Leebern also played a part in the forced retirement of University football coaching legend Vince Dooley as the school’s athletics director after Dooley reportedly refused to promote Yoculan to a high athletics administration post.
Another conflict of interest involving Leebern that should not have happened is his son, Don Leebern III, being appointed to the University Athletics Association’s Board of Directors, and remaining such while his father has been a regent. The NCAA should enact stiffer legislation to limit the roles of boosters such as Leebern and what positions of power and influence they and their family members can hold.
Leebern and his fellow-regents also dissolved the University Foundation board of trustees and formed a new Arch Foundation consisting of individuals who have not been vocally critical of Adams. Unlike the Board of Regents, which consists of political appointees made by Georgia's governor and whose members sometimes have few ties to the University, the former University Foundation Board was made up mostly of members with little or no political backgrounds yet with strong bonds to the school.
And it even took a cease and desist order from Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office to stop the liquor company Leebern owns, Georgia Crown Distributing, from peddling wine using a trademarked University logo — a violation of regents policy — after he had made about $33,000 in sales to the University.
A regent should not have a live-in relationship like Leebern has with Yoculan. A regent also should not use the position to grind personal axes or get personal favors for him and his family. Nor should a regent violate the policies the University System mandates its employees follow. Additionally, a regent should not give the impression of being one of those despicable people who believes he can buy off whomever he wants or always get what he wants because of his monetary wealth. Finally, a regent should not violate NCAA rules.
According to financial contribution records, Georgia Governors Zell Miller, Roy Barnes, Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal (more than $30,000 in 2011) and many other political candidates — Democrat and Republican — have received large sums of money from Leebern, Georgia Crown Distributing and other members of the Leebern Family. Instead of booting Leebern and proving that nothing excuses his sometimes indefensible conduct as a regent, Gov. Deal showed that simply doing things the right way doesn’t always matter as long as the donation checks keep rolling in.
If a governor ever removes Leebern as a regent (and Adams as the school’s president), the campus bell should ring in celebration, as each will be among the Bulldogs' greatest triumphs.
—Tim Gardner is a journalist and a long-time follower of the University of Georgia.