Minnesota State University Mankato destroyed notes from its controversial investigation of head football coach Todd Hoffner, who was fired by the school but ultimately won back his job.

The finding, part of a 19-page state legislative auditor's report released Thursday, as well as the "starkly different ways" the school and Hoffner see the case, likely means that key questions surrounding the school's probe of Hoffner may never be satisfactorily answered.

The report did not take sides in the nationally watched dispute, which started in August 2012 when Hoffner was removed from his job after school officials found nude pictures of his children on his school cellphone.

"We did not try to decide who was 'right,' " noted the report, done at the request of state lawmakers and university leaders. "What we can report, however, is that both sides still think they were right."

The report said the legislative auditor's investigation came because of confusion over how Richard Davenport, the school's president, could fire Hoffner and a state arbitrator could later reinstate him. The two decisions "have raised questions and concerns about how two public officials could reach such different decisions based on the same evidence," the report added.

The report said Davenport told state officials he responded to the Hoffner situation in light of the Penn State University football sex scandal that was unfolding at the time and garnering nationwide attention. Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had just been found guilty of child sex abuse and school administrators there were indicted on a charge of endangering the welfare of children and other charges.

Davenport and other school officials, according to the report, "believe they acted in a reasonable, well-intentioned and justified way" but were prohibited from making public many aspects of the case due to state privacy laws.

Hoffner's attorney Christopher Madel took issue with comparison to the Sandusky case, saying in a response letter that Hoffner's case had nothing to do with sexual abuse or similar misconduct. Equating Hoffner with Sandusky is "absurd" Madel wrote, adding "that [if] a person could draw such a comparison [it] exemplifies why that person should not have the authority to make life-changing employment decisions affecting others."

A judge dismissed criminal charges against Hoffner, finding the images on the cellphone — of his children ages 5 to 9 at the time, dancing and performing skits after taking a bath — were innocent child's play.

The university did not reinstate Hoffner as coach, though, and continued to investigate him, eventually firing him in May 2013. A state arbitrator overturned the firing, and Hoffner returned as head coach in April.

Unanswered questions

Madel, in a letter released as part of the report, criticized the legislative auditor's office for not probing deep enough into the controversy. The report left unanswered questions about how much the school spent investigating and disciplining Hoffner, Madel said.

Hoffner could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The legislative auditor's office meanwhile said it was "surprised" that the school's investigator "destroyed her contemporaneous interview notes" when she conducted an investigation for Davenport. The investigator added that interviews with two key students in the case were not recorded or conducted under oath. The investigator's practices "contrast dramatically" with those of the legislative auditor's office, the report said.

The report added: "We bring the issue forth because investigative methods are important in ensuring fairness to all the people affected by an investigation, and because we found confusion and conflicts among the state officials we consulted about how interviews in personnel investigations are and should be conducted and documented. Given what we found, we recommend that [the school] reassess how it conducts and documents interviews in personnel [and possibly other] investigations."

Davenport told auditors that decisions on Hoffner were based on the university's investigation of the coach, which focused on allegations different from the criminal allegations and specifically involved violations of MnSCU policies and concerns about his judgment.

Madel's letter also disputed that account, arguing that the school's initial investigation focused on allegations that were the same or similar to those in the criminal process. Once the charges were dismissed, the school chose to begin a second investigation of the coach as part of an "after-the-fact campaign" to justify administrators' tentative decision to fire him, Madel wrote.

Davenport cosigned a letter telling the legislative auditor the school's investigative methods might need "further assessment" and agreed state agencies are not consistent on investigative procedures.

"While Minnesota State University, Mankato and Coach Hoffner are already working together and are looking to the future, we join you in hoping that this review will provide closure to all concerned," the letter added.

mike.kaszuba@startribune.com • 612-673-4388

pam.louwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102