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A Cover-up Culture at the U of M? Denial as Administrative Policy?

  • Blog Post by: Bill Gleason
  • December 1, 2013 - 6:06 AM

Link to Video

KMSP-TV has been punching above its weight lately. First they did a story on the Markingson case that I commented on earlier on Community Voices. See: "Send in the Wackos..."   Their latest effort in the Investigators series is quite good and thought provoking. Long time newsies will recognize the narrator for this piece, the excellent Trish Van Pilsum.

This new piece is titled "U Insider" where insider is being used in the same way that it is used in the phrase "insider trading." I'd encourage those interested to watch the video - link given above - or at the same location the case is outlined in text form. I've also put up most of the report on my blog The Periodic Table with highlighting of the very best parts...

So what's the short version? (source of all quotations)

1. A university employee was allegedly harrassed into taking a supervisor on an illegal mule deer hunt on a reservation in  South Dakota. She was cited, admitted guilt, and paid a fine. 

The Standing Rock Reservation is in South Dakota -- 430 miles from the Twin Cities campus, and U officials -- like the vice president of university services -- would very much like to play up that distance.

"I really don't have any comment about something that happened off university property or off university time," Vice President of University Services Pam Wheelock told Fox 9.

Louden pleaded guilty to the two citations. Off campus? Sure -- but very much a universtiy issue because according to an anonymous complaint filed with the U, Louden repeatedly harassed one of her subordinates to take her on the hunting trip in the first place, calling him dozens of times until he relented. He ended up paying a $250 fine for aiding and abetting the illegal hunt. 

Professor David Schultz, a nationally recognized expert on business ethics at Hamline University, had this to say:

That seems perfectly inappropriate.  "This is using your position of authority for purposes of getting something from your subordinates that seems completely illegitimate."

Au contraire?

The U says its own internal investigation found no evidence of harassment. They wouldn't say if they checked Louden's phone records -- something they wouldn't turn over to the Fox 9 Investigators, citing privacy.

"That's all the comment I have," Wheelock said. "It was investigated and closed without discipline."

The U also wouldn't tell Fox 9 if they reviewed the poaching criminal file. The Fox 9 Investigators obtained it through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

2. A University of Minnesota supervisor apparently rigged bids for a contractor friend.

What appears to be tiny, toy people scurrying atop a cold, windy roof on the U's East Bank are real bidders taking part in a process that is supposed to be a level playing field. No one company should have an edge in order to protect the taxpayer.

"Certainly, it sends up the red flags," Schultz said.

Yet, anonymous facilities management workers complained that Louden rigged the system, eliminating the competition for a roofing company owned by a guy she's known for a long time. The business is Skyline Building Envelope Consultants, mostly roofing consultants. The man is Rod Schalesky.

An internal investigation by the university dismissed the complaint after Louden insisted their relationship was purely professional, but the U's own investigation failed to note the following things revealed in e-mails obtained by the Fox 9 Investigators:

Unfortunately for that claim, e-mail records obtained by the KMPSP investigators revealed that:

1. Schalesky said he would drop proposals at Louden's home for her to review -- a practice that other consultants for several companies in the same business say is unheard of.

2. When Schalesky moved from his home and office, Louden told him in an e-mail, "If you need something, let me know."

3. Twice before, Schalesky's company was to present competitive bids on large products, and he discussed his bids with Louden. This, according to U policy, is supposed to be a confidential process.

4. The university paid Skyline's liability insurance so the company would work on a U project.

U officials say Skyline's work was still a bargain, but the e-mails show that the finance folks -- even Beth Louden's boss, Mike Berthelsen -- didn't like it. Still, the insurance got paid and Skyline got the job.

"I don't believe that violates any policy," Wheelock said repeatedly when asked whether such payments were appropriate.

The university apparently dismissed a complaint that the bidding was organized to favor the bidding by the company Skyline owned by Loudon's friend Schalesky:

but according to e-mails, it appears she and her staff did just that.

Instead of considering the inspection of several buildings as one big project, which would have to be put out for bid, she told them to break up the inspections building by building. That kept prices low enough that Skyline would be given the work without bidding for it.

A pile of purchase orders show Skyline pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 5 years.

So why would UofM supervisor Louden try to give Skyline/Schalesky the edge?

A few years back, the Loudens wanted to join a class-action lawsuit against the company that made the old shingles on her house, but before she could, she needed an inspector to sign off that her shingles were bad. A former inspector for Skyline did just that.

Yet, when asked how much Louden paid for that inspection, Schalesky told Fox 9, "There was no inspection."

Schalesky owns Skyline, and at first, he denied his company helped Louden with her lawsuit; however, when Fox 9 told him his former inspector had spoken with reporters, Schalesky said, "He went out there and picked up a sample of the shingles that had fallen off the roof."

The former Inspector said there was more to it than that, and settlement documents appear to confirm it. He says he took three samples from the roof and took photographs before filling out paperwork. Fox 9 checked to see what was actually required for the settlement -- photos and a sample from the roof.

The inspector said he didn't get paid for what he described as a $200 to $300 job. Why? Schalesky told him Louden was a good customer. Schalesky does not dispute it was done as a favor to Louden.

But according to Professor Schulz:

"There is no such thing as a small favor."
 

3. Have "favors" been done by University of Minnesota employees at the Loudon residence?

Favors? The U's investigation checked out complaints that Louden had employees working on her home or property. She denied it. That was good enough for the U auditors -- but Fox 9 spoke with neighbors who say they've seen university vehicles coming and going from Louden's house during the day.
 

4. Complaints were made about unnecessary spending

One of the complaints about her said she spent what she wanted on things like food for meetings and gatherings. Two years of food receipts show the department spent $12,299 on food bought from local business for routine meetings -- most involving Louden or her workers. By way of comparison, the University of Wisconsin's facilities department didn't spend a dime because budgets are just too tight.

According to a memo written by Louden, she and 9 others planned to head to Las Vegas for what's billed as the largest trade show for custodial supplies in North America.  

Conference officials say the average size of groups attending was just 5, and none of the Big 10 universities the Fox 9 Investigators checked with -- Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois, or Michigan -- sent anyone to Vegas this year. Wheelock didn't know the U planned on sending people until Fox 9 told her.

So there you have it...

Nothing to see here, move along?

This situation certainly reminds me of the way the U of M has handled the Markingson case. But of course the death of a clinical trials patient is a much more serious matter. 

But as an indicator of the institutional culture at the U, this case speaks volumes. The discrepancy between words and actions is obvious. Most of us can recognize why the situation described above is wrong and have witnessed similar behavior in our own lives. To the lay person the Markingson case may at first seem complicated and beyond comprehension, because who is to decide when doctors disagree?

This is but one more example of why an outside investigation of the Markingson case is necessary. 

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