UPDATE: Urbana admin accused of trying to secretly record closed board meeting

UPDATE: Urbana admin accused of trying to secretly record closed board meeting

URBANA — An Urbana schools administrator who allegedly intended to secretly record a closed session of the school board has been criminally charged with eavesdropping.

State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said she filed the Class 4 felony charge on Thursday against Samuel Byndom, 35.

It alleges that the assistant superintendent of learning and instruction used a device disguised as a pen to record an Oct. 28 closed session of the school board.

Byndom was sent a summons to appear in court Nov. 29.

Rietz said Urbana police have been investigating Byndom for two weeks since a district employee found an email order confirmation on a district computer for a voice-activated recorder pen from a company called “SpyGuy.”

The email showed that the pen was to be delivered to Byndom’s home on Oct. 26, ahead of the Oct. 28 board meeting on employment issues — a valid reason under the Open Meetings Act to close a meeting to the public.

Urbana police Lt. Rich Surles said police learned in their investigation that the employment of both Byndom and Urbana Superintendent Don Owen were to be the subject of the closed session. Surles said police have been unable to locate Byndom to talk to him.

Armed with the information about Byndom’s order for the recording device, school board members went forward with the closed session but searched the room before starting. They found the device and removed it.

“The recorder pen was found placed in such a manner and location that it would have been placed there purposefully and would not have been easily discovered,” Rietz said.

The pen was set so that it would start recording at the sound of a voice. Rietz said after the meeting, Byndom, who had not been in the closed session, was concerned about not being able to find his “memo pen.”

Urbana police obtained a search warrant for Byndom’s home, and on Oct. 30, they found the packaging material and box the pen arrived in as well as cords for it.

The website describing the pen said it can pick up conversations up to 40 feet away. Marketing materials also claim that “nobody knows they are being recorded” and “it’s completely hidden, it works like an actual pen, and nobody has the slightest idea that it’s recording your conversation.”

If convicted of the felony eavesdropping charges, Byndom faces penalties ranging from probation to between one and three years in prison.

On Oct. 31, Owen sent an email to district staff saying Byndom was put on leave but would not say why.

Byndom has been with the Urbana school district since 2013. Before assuming the role of assistant superintendent of learning and instruction in May 2017 — a role formerly held by Jennifer Ivory-Tatum — he was the director of the district’s Adult Education Center for four years.

He also worked at the University of Illinois and Parkland College.

The Oct. 28 meeting was one of several closed Sunday closed-session meetings the board requested this year to deal with various ongoing district issues. 

In a statement, Urbana officials said they were “disheartened to learn of (Thursday’s) announcement and are fully cooperating with the Urbana Police Department and the State’s Attorney’s Office,” but declined to comment further.

“The school district does not comment on specific personnel issues or ongoing investigations and would refer all questions to the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office,” the statement read.