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University: Return of donor's money 'never' about abortion

Culverhouse sign

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — University of Alabama officials have released a selection of emails to back up their contention that their decision to return a record $26.5 million donation had nothing to do with the donor's highly publicized call for a boycott in response to the state's new, near-total abortion ban.

Instead, the emails suggest the relationship between the university and Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. had already soured before he called the boycott, and the university was already moving to return his record donation before he spoke out.

The university said Culverhouse Jr., a 70-year-old Florida real estate investor who pledged the record-setting gift in September, attempted to influence student admissions, scholarship awards, the hiring and firing of faculty and the employment status of the law school dean.

Culverhouse has said repeatedly that the university's decision to return his money was retribution for his call for a boycott of the university over the restrictive abortion legislation.

The university said it wanted to "set the record straight."

"Our decision was never about the issue of abortion," read a statement released Sunday alongside the emails. "The donor's continuing effort to rewrite history by injecting one of society's most emotional, divisive issues into the decision is especially distasteful."

Culverhouse, however, said the emails selectively released by the university only tell part of the story, adding that he believed the issues raised in the emails had been resolved. He said he continues to believe the university is lying about the motivation for the decision and argued that at least one email included was "fabricated" to appear as though university officials decided to return his money earlier than they claim.

"There's too much coincidental and inconsistent behavior for me to buy anything Alabama says," Culverhouse said. "I specialize in white collar criminal work. I've seen these kinds of documents before. The minute I looked at it I burst out laughing."

According to the emails, on May 25 — four days before Culverhouse called for the boycott — Chancellor Finis St. John IV authorized a university lawyer to prepare an outline of what needed to be done to return the gift, writing: "We need to do this immediately because it will only get worse."

Culverhouse said he believed this email was "manufactured."

University spokeswoman Kellee Reinhart said the university was "completely comfortable allowing the record to speak for itself" and had nothing else to add.

The matter erupted publicly on May 29 when Culverhouse urged the boycott, saying: "I don't want anybody to go to that law school, especially women, until the state get its act together."

He spoke after state lawmakers passed legislation making abortion at any stage of pregnancy a crime punishable by 10 years to life in prison for the provider, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The law, set to take effect in November, is the most hardline of the anti-abortion measures enacted this year as states emboldened by the new conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court take aim at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Hours later, the university announced it was considering giving Culverhouse his money back after officials said he repeated "numerous demands about the operations" of the law school. They emphatically denied the decision had anything to do with the abortion comments. The university did not elaborate any further until it released the emails Sunday.

Culverhouse did not attend Alabama, but his parents did, and the business school bears the name of Hugh Culverhouse Sr., a wealthy tax lawyer and developer who owned the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the younger Culverhouse's record-setting donation the law school was renamed after him but his name was stripped from the school Friday when the trustees also voted to return his money.

According to the emails provided by the university, Culverhouse wrote that the school's president was "unprepared" to deal with a gift of his size and repeatedly referred to the head of the law school Mark Brandon as a "small town, insecure dean" frightened by the "outside world."

The May 25 email from St. John that appears to call for a full refund followed at least a week of heated back-and-forth exchanges between Culverhouse and university officials over the administration of the law school, including disagreements over the number of admitted students, his ability to freely sit in on classes, his wish to fire 10 law school professors and the finalists selected for a constitutional law professorship he endowed.

"I wanted a renowned Constitutional law professor. Someone to make academic waves ... These are nice additions to a ... faculty with an insecure dean - but they are hardly nationally stature constitutional law figures," Culverhouse wrote.

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