Document shows SCF president Hafner practiced chairman's signature

jsalman@bradenton.comJune 21, 2012 

BRADENTON -- With pen in hand, Lars Hafner was ready to practice.

The discarded printout of a report was waiting on the desk of his second-story office in 2010. The sheet had plenty of space for him to scribble -- and practice.

He scrawled the first "Steve Harner." The opening S was sloppy. The lines shaky.

But as Hafner kept practicing, each signature became a little stronger, and 11 tries later, the result looked authentic -- Steve Harner, Chair, SCFCS Governing Board, 1/28/10.

The president of State College of Florida had his chairman's signature down pat.

That printout, supplied by Hafner's then-assistant along with her sworn affidavit, has become a key point of evidence in an investigation of forgery being requested of state inspectors.

Hafner has been accused of forging the signature of Steve Harner, then chairman of the college Board of Trustees, on a 2010 grant application for SCF's new charter school.

Hafner says the accusations are the latest in an effort by current chair Carlos Beruff to "bully" him out of a job. Beruff says he is just doing his duty as a public servant.

Each side has a notarized affidavit with conflicting statements from Harner, who may or may not have given Hafner his permission.

Now it will be up to the inspector general at the Florida Department of Education to decide.

"The president of a college should have better judgment," Beruff said. "The problem with Hafner has always been poor judgment."

Hafner declined requests for comment Thursday. He told the board this week he signed the grant application only after receiving personal permission from Harner, who wasn't available to sign for himself.

Hafner presented his own affidavit, signed by Harner, that supports his claims.

"I stand by my affidavit," Harner told the Bradenton Herald Thursday. "I'm not specifically sure which occasions I agreed to, and not having that documented was a mistake. But this would certainly qualify as something I would give him permission to sign ... looking back, it wasn't the smartest idea."

Still, Harner stands by the college president. He said he never gave Hafner blanket permission to sign his name, but he also had no doubts Hafner wouldn't sign documents on his behalf without running it by Harner first.

He believes the allegations are ammo by Beruff in an attempt to displace Hafner, who Beruff has privately asked to resign and has attacked publicly for nearly a year.

The situation apparently began when Hafner's former assistant, Pamela Morris, came to Beruff several months ago with contentions that her boss had been regularly forging Harner's signature on official college documents. She said she witnessed him practice the signatures first-hand, according to public records released Thursday.

Morris, who voluntarily stepped down from her position with the college in June 2011, signed an affidavit attesting to her story earlier this month.

To vet the complaint, Beruff next met with Harner during a private meeting in March.

From his waterfront restaurant in Venice, Harner on Thursday said he told Beruff during that initial meeting that he gave Hafner the OK to sign documents on his behalf at least twice.

He was unsure if the grant application in question was one of them, but he said it was consistent with the types of requests he had agreed to in the past. Beruff decided to move forward with his own investigation. He hired an attorney to help, and a forensic document examiner to review the files.

With a stack of documents 3 inches thick, the SCF chairman called a special meeting Tuesday evening to present his evidence before the Board of Trustees and more than 120 faculty onlookers.

In a 5-2 vote, the board agreed to send the packet to the DOE inspector general, who has been asked to investigate the forgery claims.

If the inspector finds Hafner improperly signed college documents, trustees could then fire Hafner with no obligations to pay his $284,166 annual base salary for the four years left on his contract, according to public records.

During the meeting Tuesday, Hafner also accused Beruff of violating a state law that protects the confidentiality of college president evaluations. Beruff verbally shared some of those results in the meeting.

"This has been nine months of basically a witch hunt," Hafner said Tuesday.

Beruff was appointed to the seat by Gov. Rick Scott. He also serves as chair of the Sarasota Bradenton Airport Authority, and owns a housing construction firm in Bradenton.

Beruff says he is fulfilling the public responsibility of his position by investigating the claims against Hafner.

He retained a forensic expert, whose report confirmed the signature on the grant application wasn't Harner's.

Beruff also hired Bradenton attorney Gregory Porges to conduct a private investigation, which following two conversations between Porges and Harner, concluded Harner didn't sign the document or authorize the college president to do so on his behalf.

Porges produced an affidavit, which conflicts with the story both Harner and Hafner gave. It's unclear exactly how much of Beruff's personal funds were spent on the investigation.

"Based upon my personal conversation with Mr. Harner on May 21, I mentioned that Mr. Harner acknowledged being requested permission by Dr. Hafner on one or two occasions, but that the documents for which such permission was requested were of a minor nature and 'definitely were not the collegiate school documents,'" Porges said in an email to the Herald.

"Mr. Harner confirmed this information to me when I called on June 11 for the specific purpose of confirming and verifying the information."

Area officials who work with Beruff weren't surprised to hear the measures Beruff took to vet the complaints first stemming from that meeting with Hafner's former assistant.

Beruff even produced Bank of America deposits from 2008 in which he believes Hafner used a stamp of Harner's signature instead of the real thing.

Beruff "has strong principals and his word is his bond," Airport President and CEO Rick Piccolo said. "He's not resumé-building to be on these boards. He takes the judiciary responsibility very seriously."

Even if Harner gave Hafner authorization to sign his name, legal experts question why the college president would spend time practicing a close duplication, as the obtained email shows.

Instead, if he would have just signed as an agent -- putting the words "in authorization of" or "on behalf of" next to the signature on the dotted line -- there would be no questions of ethics violations, said Sarasota attorney Joseph Lehn.

Lehn said there should no instance in which a college president signs as the chairman, under any circumstances, with or without permission.

"What it comes down to, is in the court of public opinion, this all looks fishy," said Lehn, who specializes in foreclosures and bankruptcies. "He misrepresented himself. He violated the public's trust, and misled the public."

Neither the state attorney's office nor the inspector general had received the complaint as of Thursday.

The college's legal staff is still putting the package together. SCF didn't received a copy of Porges' affidavit until late Thursday, which delayed the request for investigation, said SCF spokeswoman Kathy Walker.

The board of trustees has had 18 meetings since September, many which have been contentious.

Some college supporters think this incident will be just too much to overcome.

"It looks like an irreparable situation," Harner said. "It's so frustrating to see."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter@JoshSalman

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