Kent State University last week said it’s done answering Beacon Journal questions about its search for a new president.
In a statement, the university said it delivered hundreds of pages of documents and is now moving on.
In essence, the university is refusing to provide supporting evidence that it properly spent at least $250,000 in public dollars in its search for a new president.
It paid invoice after invoice listing “prospect travel expenses” and “press checks” totaling tens of thousands of dollars with no indication for whom those expenses were made, the vendor’s name or whether payments involved any questionable matters.
KSU Vice President and Board Secretary Charlene Reed, who coordinated the search for the university, did not respond to repeated inquiries from the Beacon Journal about how she verified the search firm’s charges for applicants when there was no identifying data.
She referred calls to KSU spokesman Eric Mansfield, who released a statement praising the committee’s unanimous selection of Beverly Warren, provost of Virginia Commonwealth University, and for cooperation in releasing records.
“We are focused now upon a positive transition of leadership as [President] Dr. [Lester] Lefton looks to retirement.” Mansfield wrote in an email. He said “the approval process for invoices was appropriate for each expense.”
While KSU is a public university that gets tax dollars for operations and capital projects and is subject to Ohio’s public records law, it has refused to provide any information about who applied for the job through the search firm or much detail about the public money spent on the hunt.
University general counsel Willis Walker said in an interview that the search firm, Storbeck Pimental and Associates, was given control of all records, some of which may already be destroyed.
Shelly Storbeck, a principal with the company in Media, Pa., declined to comment on the contract with the university.
KSU was so intent to ensure privacy that it required search committee members to sign confidentiality agreements.
The university signed an addendum to the Storbeck Pimental contract that gave the company complete control over what is released to the public.
Secrecy irritates critics
KSU’s attitude rankled advocates for public transparency.
“Why the secrecy?” asked Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘It would stink in the nostrils of the American people.’ ”
Bill Rich, a law professor at the University of Akron, said he saw “little likelihood that KSU could successfully defend its position in court.”
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the university is flouting Ohio’s public record laws.
“A contract cannot trump the requirements of the public records law, so any agreement they have with the search firm shouldn’t be allowed to prevent the release of records that would otherwise be public,” he said. “A governmental body can’t enter into a contract with another entity to break the law.”
Walker, the university counsel, has pointed to a 2010 lawsuit between the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Board of Education as evidence that applicant materials can legally be withheld from the public.
The newspaper sought the applications of candidates for superintendent and lost. Because no copies of the materials had been provided to the board outside of the interview setting, they had never been “kept,” the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.
But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Sunshine Law Manual cautions that the case “is limited to a narrow set of facts.”
“There is no public records exception which generally protects resumes and application materials obtained by public offices in the hiring process,” according to the manual. That obligation extends to materials “in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process.”
Professor asks questions
Tim Smith, a public records lawyer and KSU emeritus professor of journalism and mass communication, was critical of the process and questioned at least one search committee member.
“The thinking is, if you don’t have it [a document], you don’t have to give it up,” the search committee member told Smith. “ ‘We never had any paper. I don’t recall ever printing anything out,’ ” Smith said he was told.
Storbeck Pimental’s online portal enabled the search committee members to view candidate materials confidentially, according to the company website.
The company led a seven-
month search in which KSU spent at least $250,000 for chauffeurs, travel, overnight accommodations at the Cleveland Clinic’s InterContinental Hotel, banquets, the search firm and more, according to records that KSU provided to the Beacon Journal.
While the search firm provided detailed receipts to KSU when its own staff traveled on the university’s behalf, right down to $4.25 for raw almonds at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, the invoices for candidates were completely devoid of detail.
For example, the search firm billed KSU $4,754 for “candidate travel expenses” on Dec. 29; $1,925 for “press checks” on Jan. 15; and $1,525 for “binders” on Dec. 10—all without identifying information, at least according to what was provided to the Beacon Journal.
When asked how KSU confirmed that invoices were appropriate, spokesman Mansfield said “the approval process was appropriate for each expense,” never explaining how KSU approved such oblique invoices.
He said he hoped the newspaper would be as aggressive with the University of Akron in its presidential search, but that wasn’t necessary: On Friday, UA released the names and applications of 19 candidates who seek to replace Luis Proenza, who will step down to return to teaching in June.
The Beacon Journal published that information on Saturday.
Beacon Journal Managing Editor Doug Oplinger told Mansfield in a phone conversation Thursday that KSU did not answer the Beacon Journal’s questions and the newspaper does not consider the issue to be closed.
Smith, the KSU professor emeritus said: “Their hope is that no one will sue and then they can continue to thumb their noses at the law and the public.”