By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — University of Nebraska Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare has done legal work for a string of big name NU coaches and athletes, from Nebraska football Coach Bo Pelini to former Huskers Ndamukong Suh, Jared Crick and Joba Chamberlain, prompting questions about whether that’s a conflict of interest.
University of Nebraska Regent Tim Clare
Suh now plays for the Detroit Lions, Crick for the Houston Texans and Chamberlain for the Detroit Tigers. They all attended college at NU, and they’ve all been represented, or are still being represented by, Clare, an attorney.
Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska, said Clare’s representation of NU players and coaches raises questions about whether he’s benefitting financially from his position as a regent.
“It’s not in the best interest of his legal firm really to be handling this kind of thing while he’s a regent,” Gould said. “It would appear that he has an inside track.”
Clare is trustee for revocable trusts for Pelini and NU basketball coach Tim Miles — the trustees are listed as the owners of Pelini and Miles’s homes in Lincoln.
It’s not clear how many other past or present NU coaches and players have also been represented by Clare, and he declined to say, citing attorney-client privilege. But in February he amended his statement of financial interest— filed with the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission — to add the names of six trusts he is trustee for, including the two for Miles and Pelini, although the fact that they are the clients is not disclosed in his filing.
In a letter to the state ethics commission, Clare said it was brought to his attention he inadvertently failed to list a half-dozen trusts he was involved in since 2010. Clare was elected to the board of regents, which governs and sets policy for the university system, in 2008.
He wrote that he thought his role as trustee of a revocable trust was protected under attorney-client privilege and exempt from a statute requiring disclosure of entities where he is a trustee.
“In the interests of full disclosure and transparency, and in order to be in complete compliance with (the law),” he decided to disclose his position as trustee of the trusts, he wrote in the letter.
Clare wouldn’t identify the names of the clients, citing confidentiality concerns.
“I have disclosed those to the university,” he said. “Nothing that I do comes in conflict with the university.”
Gould says that’s Clare’s opinion, and he questions whether those coaches and athletes would’ve gone to Clare if he weren’t a regent. It would be best to avoid conflicts of interest, he said, or at a bare minimum, report them and don’t vote on any related issues.
“He can say, ‘I’m only doing certain kinds of legal work’ — well, what would he consider a conflict?” Gould said. “When you have the kinds of conflicts that he has, the best thing is not to get into these kinds of situations, period.”
“If I was negotiating a coaches’ contract, that’s a conflict. If I was negotiating a buyout for them, that’s a conflict. If I was negotiating a bonus, that’s a conflict,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the university. It has everything to do with them personally.”
All the work he does for players and coaches is “personal stuff,” such as wills and trusts, he said, unrelated to university business.
“It’s not in conflict in any way shape or form with the university,” he said. “If me or my firm is in conflict with something happening with the university, I always recuse myself or disclose that I’ve got a conflict.”
Clare amended his financial interest statement two months after the Omaha World-Herald wrote a story about how he served on the Bo Pelini Foundation’s board of directors and was its pro bono lawyer. One day after he was interviewed by the World-Herald, he resigned from the board.
And while he resigned from that unpaid position to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, he has not stopped doing paid legal work for other coaches and players. He says he resigned from the foundation board “out of an abundance of caution … rather than continue to fight and argue about it,” noting that his position “drew a lot of attention” (from the Omaha newspaper).
As part of his law practice, Clare has helped professional athletes review contracts and do estate planning since 1994, saying in a 2010 interview he helps them avoid getting “stung by bad representation, bad investments, or both.”
Elected officials, such as Clare, must report conflicts of interest to the state Accountability and Disclosure Commission if a decision or vote could result in a financial benefit or detriment to them or their immediate family or business associations. Although Miles and Pelini report to Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst, NU regents accept their coaching contracts. Clare sees no conflict in the work he does for players and coaches.
The board of regents’ ethics code says “there shall be no conflict between the private interests of a public official or employee and his or her official duties.” The code also says regents should:
• Inform himself or herself of conflict of interest perils and remain alert to them in his or her activities
• Make certain that no outside activities interfere with the discharge of university obligations
• Freely disclose outside activities to the university regarding situations that could involve, or be construed as, conflicts of interest
Clare said he cleared everything with university lawyers.
“Everybody is on board with what I’ve done,” he said.
Gould isn’t on board. He said Clare was elected to serve the public, and he shouldn’t benefit from his position.
“He’s entrusted by the public to serve the public, not to make money,” he said. “You’re not there to get rich, you’re there to serve.”
Although Clare has better access to NU coaches and players than most Nebraskans thanks to his seat on the board of regents, he said his legal work for coaches and players has nothing to do with those connections. He said he’s been around the athletic department since he was 10 years old — both he and his dad played football for the university.
“When you’re down there that long, you develop relationships and when you have those relationships you have trust,” he said. “Those relationships have been established. I’ve known some of the coaches since they were in college.”
That wasn’t the case for Miles, who said after he got the job as head coach in Lincoln, former Husker defensive coordinator Craig Bohl recommended Clare to help him set up a trust. Clare is trustee for a revocable trust that is listed as the owner of Miles’ house in Lincoln.
“Many coaches use a trust to keep their name off public records,” Miles said.
Clare confirmed that, saying, “Part of the reason we do some of these things is to preserve the confidentiality.”
Clare says he doesn’t market himself to coaches and athletes, but often when coaches move to town they talk to other coaches and he gets contacted through word-of-mouth.
“I don’t pursue clients. Clients would come to me,” he said. “You do a good job for people, then they’re going to give your names to others.”
He also indicated his work in the sports arena is not a big part of his practice, saying, “If I relied exclusively on that for my practice and for my income, I would starve because it’s not a large percentage of my work in the first place.”
If that’s the case, he should disclose to the public exactly how much money he is making off the legal work he does, Gould said. Clare probably isn’t in violation of any law, but only because the state has such weak conflict-of-interest laws, he said.
“Unfortunately as a state, we don’t have those kinds of laws,” Gould said. “There should be tighter laws and there should be situations where you’d have to make it very clear what the conflict is, and be unable to act on certain issues.”
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