In May, the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota learned that another high-ranking athletic department employee had been placed on leave for misconduct. This was supposed to stay secret.
Then KSTP-TV broadcast a story about Randy Handel, an associate athletic director, being disciplined for violating the U’s sexual harassment policy, and attributed it to an unnamed regent.
The board sprang into action — not to denounce disgusting behavior by highly paid university officials, but to find out who told the public.
On Sept. 7, the attorney hired by the university to investigate the caper, presented his report at a closed meeting of the regents. Don Lewis’ conclusion can be boiled down to this: Sorry, I couldn’t crack the case.
A week later, the university issued a four-paragraph statement calling off the hunt for the leaker.
“Mr. Lewis’ review related to the release of confidential information and 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 statement said. “This thorough review cost approximately $74,400 and took approximately 150 hours to complete.”
Lawyers’ bills were apparently the only records generated by this investigation. The university said Lewis produced no report, which, along with its private presentation, conveniently avoids any outside scrutiny of what went into the investigation. I suppose they were worried that even if they produced a confidential report, someone would leak it.
The U’s statement concludes with this puffery: “Even if inconclusive, this review demonstrates the University of Minnesota’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.”
I don’t know how spending $74,400 for nothing demonstrates fiduciary responsibility, or whether the real purpose was to scare anyone else from talking to reporters.
I do know this: The university’s fear of getting in trouble for releasing private information reflects a state records policy that’s seriously out of whack.
Every year, the Legislature adds more restrictions to the state’s open records law. There are 660 and counting. Releasing private and restricted information carries serious penalties, including possible criminal prosecution, so it’s hardly surprising that agencies err on the side of withholding information.
And the University of Minnesota knows as well as any agency that no one’s going to get prosecuted for hiding what should be public.
Last year, I sent identical data requests to 27 units of state government. Because government officials often complain about the burden of fulfilling requests for data from the public, I wanted to see their lists of requests and who was making them.
Most agencies responded within weeks. It took the U four months to hand over its list, despite having a supposedly sophisticated system of tracking each request. Only Minnesota Management and Budget took longer than the U, though it should be said that one agency, the state Department of Education, never complied at all.
Perhaps for their next investigation, the regents could hire a lawyer to look into why the U takes so long to hand over public information. Plenty of witnesses are ready to come forward.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.