By Brittany Wilson and Kristen Griffith, The Whetstone
Wesley senior Ashley McNeal heard about the indictments against several Wilmington Trust executives in the news, but when she realized the name in bold on the indictment was one of Wesley’s board of trustees members, her eyes grew wide and she sat back in her seat.
“It just gives me a really icky feeling,” she said. “I wouldn’t want him representing a public bathroom, let alone my college.”
Robert Harra. Jr., Wesley College board of trustees chair and former president of Wilmington Trust bank, was criminally indicted on Aug. 5 along with three other bank executives. The federal government charged him and the others with providing misinformation to bank regulators, the government, and the investing public about the true financial state of the bank.
Despite the controversial allegations against him, Harra recently was reelected as chair of Wesley College’s board of trustees for another term.
“They are two mutually exclusive things—the bank doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the school,” McNeal said. “But what happened with the bank is a reflection of Harra’s integrity and his character, which does have to do with the school.”
Harra is one of the highest-ranking bank officials to be indicted and criminally charged, and if convicted, he will face significant prison time.
Harra’s lawyer’s secretary told the Whetstone that Harra’s lawyer, Michael P. Kelly, was unable to comment.
“He has been busy preparing for trial,” she said.
Junior Dru Sottnick said it is unfair for the college to allow Harra to stay when so many other staff members have been let go for less serious reasons.
“We let all these people go, but then someone like this can still be here and no one has said anything to him,” she said. “This guy is risking jail time for his involvement in some huge scandal, and yet last year, certain people from the history department were told they needed to leave and they didn’t do anything.”
Political Science professor, Dr. Anthony Armstrong said other members of the board could be persuading him to step down behind closed doors, but support him in public.
“I remember when a major story about Wesley College and the administration appeared in the News Journal during the 1990s, the board voted confidence in the current president,” he said. “Behind the scenes, they already determined to ask the president to step down.”
Armstrong said he hopes the same process is happening with Harra.
“If nothing else, I think reports of numerous donors and alumni would move them in that direction,” he said.
Senior Rahson Morrison does not think this is any of the student’s business.
“How does this affect us as students?” he said. “It doesn’t. Our opinion doesn’t even matter. I don’t even know this guy, so my opinion definitely doesn’t matter.”
Morrison said Harra does not deserve to lose his position over this.
“People underage drink here all the time,” he said. “Are we about to kick them out? No.”
English professor Susan Bobby said that although the school cannot force Harra to resign, he should consider stepping down as chair for the sake of the college’s reputation.
“I just think he should want to resign as that figurehead so people don’t associate the word ‘fraud’ with the college,” she said. “If he feels he needs to remain on the board until he is proven guilty because he is maintaining his innocence, fine—just step down from the chair position and let someone else be the chair in the meantime.”
Senior Keroll Newby also said someone else should take his position.
“There are many people who are certified and trustworthy enough to care about this job title,” he said. “Robert Harra should not be holding such a prestigious position that requires trust after he has proven to not be trustworthy.”
Dr. Patricia Sherblom, professor of physical education, said Harra is making the college look bad by remaining chair of the board.
“Even though he’s innocent until proven guilty, it would be nice if he would take the initiative to step down as chair until he was done with the indictment process,” she said.
Dr. Cynthia Newton, professor of political science, said a board of trustee member is responsible for the overall vision and existence of the college.
“They approve major policy changes, capital projects and donate funds,” she said.
She said they also approve the budget and promote the college, as well as other things.
But the chair has other important responsibilities.
“The chair of the board of trustees presides over board meetings, serves as adviser to the board and president, and represents the college at ceremonial occasions,” she said.
Newton said he helps with the negotiation of larger projects, fiscal matters, and other community-business relations.
Harra’s name was included in 15 of the 19 indictments, including conspiracy to commit fraud related to the purchase and sale of securities, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and making false statements to regulators and the SEC.
The statement released by Delaware’s Department of Justice said, “Harra encouraged the ‘waiver’ of past due loans,” which hid the poor health of the bank’s loan portfolio so people would continue to invest.
Special Agent in Charge Scott Hinkley of the Delaware FBI said in a press release that deliberately concealing information from the government and the investing public is a serious offense.
“These aren’t victimless crimes,” he said. “Those who committed them will be held accountable.”
When M&T bought out Wilmington Trust, shareholders lost 46 percent of their shares’ value overnight. About 600 employees lost their jobs.
McNeal said Harra’s willingness to profit from other people’s expense is a true expression of his character.
“Bad decisions don’t make you a bad person,” she said. “But bad decisions do make you an untrustworthy person, especially when you have affected that many people.”