An investigation into who leaked confidential information about a University of Minnesota athletic official has ended — with no culprit in sight.

And that has some questioning again why the university launched a search for a leaker in the first place — an investigation that ultimately cost $74,400.

The probe, which was requested by the Board of Regents in May, took about 150 hours to complete, the university reported Thursday. And in the end, it failed to uncover who told KSTP-TV that Randy Handel, an associate athletic director, had been disciplined for violating the U's sexual harassment policy.

"The results of the review were inconclusive — information reviewed did not identify the source of the private personnel information," the university said in a statement released Thursday.

The TV station had reported that a U regent, on the condition of anonymity, provided contents of an e-mail regarding the sexual harassment investigation of Handel.

In mid-May, the U said Handel would be suspended without pay for two weeks and demoted.

The university hired attorney Don Lewis "to review the release of confidential information," the statement said, out of concern that state privacy laws had been violated. The investigation included "an examination of both electronic mail and cell telephone records of Regents and other University personnel and interviews with those who had access to the confidential information," the U said.

"Even if inconclusive, this review demonstrates the [U's] commitment to respecting the confidentiality of information concerning individuals within the University community, the importance of ensuring that University officials are complying with Minnesota State Law, and the importance the Board places on its fiduciary responsibility to this institution," the statement concluded.

Regent Steve Sviggum said the U's investigation confirms that no regents leaked the information.

"They found nothing," he said. "No e-mails, no texts, no phone calls. That's good and comforting … that we can trust one another's word."

Confirmation of that is valuable, he said, adding, "But I don't like to spend money that shouldn't have been spent."

Regent Chairman David McMillan said the U was obligated to investigate the leak, which violated data privacy laws. "When something like this [leak] happens, we have to do our very best to figure out what happened and why," he said.

The investigation seems to conclude that no one on the board "directly leaked" the information, McMillan said. "Whether there was somebody who had a careless conversation, I don't know. … We need to move forward and work together and do our best to make sure this doesn't happen again."

A university spokesman said the information that indicated Handel was under investigation should not have been made public until "the process was complete and discipline was imposed."

Jane Kirtley, a U professor of media law and ethics, called the investigation into the leak "inappropriate."

"It's [the U's] responsibility to keep their information confidential," she said. "It's not a matter of condoning the leak. It's the hunt … that has the effect of discouraging people from talking to the press about anything."

The fact that the university hired an outside attorney for the investigation gave the appearance that it was really serious about tracking down a leaker or that it is "really heavy-handed," depending on your perspective, she said.

"It puts people on notice that if they have the temerity to speak to the press … there likely will be repercussions," Kirtley said. "It doesn't seem to me that a land-grant university should be engaging in those kinds of operations."

Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, agreed the university shouldn't have put so much time and energy into looking for the leaker.

"My concern is what's happening at the university," she said. "Their priority should have been: How do we address this concern of sexual misconduct on campus?"

The money spent on the investigation should have been used on "programming that would prevent this from happening in the first place," she added.

A 'waste of money'

Jim Carter, a onetime Gophers football star who ran unsuccessfully for regent, has consistently blasted university officials for wasting money on such an investigation. "It was a criminal waste of money," he said Thursday.

Last May, he said he knew about the investigation into Handel weeks before it was disclosed in the media. He wouldn't identify the person who gave him the information, but he said it didn't come from a regent.

"I don't think a regent leaked anything," Carter said. Instead, he believes people who knew those at the center of the sexual harassment investigation may have disclosed the information. "I don't believe there was a leak," Carter said.

If the media hadn't been tipped to the investigation, he said, it likely wouldn't have been made public.

"I think they would have kept it quiet," he said. "They would have kicked it under the rug and hid it." • 612-673-7384 | • 612-673-4788