As first mentioned by your humble gift adviser, one of the issues that I saw in the Sweet Briar College mess was whether the Amherst County Attorney had legal standing to bring the lawsuit. I expected the college’s board and management to raise this issue. In my opinion, it is the state attorney general who has the responsibility of representing the citizens when a public charity goes astray.
Sure enough, the Virginia Attorney General has weighed in on the attempted closing of Sweet Briar, and his first brief contains an argument that the county attorney does not have legal standing to bring the case. He did this in a friend-of-the-court brief in which he argues that the general assembly grants only the attorney general the authority to determine when it is necessary to protect the public interest.
While this is a setback for the Save Sweet Briar group, it is unclear what the AG will do relative to his job of protecting the public interest in this case. I, for one, am pleased that at long last, we finally have a state attorney general who recognizes the responsibility to monitor public charities that exist only because of laws enacted by the will of the people. The AG, as a public servant, should step in and, at a minimum, determine the facts and proceed from there.
Of course, time is of the essence. The suit that has already been filed seeks to stop the closing process so that students continue to apply to the college, current students and professors do not go looking for a new school, etc. The AG, who is coming to the table a few weeks late, is hopefully as motivated as the Amherst County Attorney.
There is a good lesson here for all nonprofit stakeholders: Realize that the public charity is an institution that serves the public interest. This is the foundation of its tax-exempt status. Whenever there's a question of whether a public charity is serving the public interest, get the state attorney general involved immediately. This may be more difficult than you think, but it is the proper way to go. Right now, we are seeing the beginning of a turf war in Virginia, and the citizens of Virginia and America could be the collateral damage.