Jim Dey: IBHE director's exit seemed neat, but report details quite a mess

Jim Dey: IBHE director's exit seemed neat, but report details quite a mess

In October 2012, the Illinois Board of Higher Education issued a news release announcing that George Reid, the agency's executive director, "has decided to step down for personal reasons" in order to reduce "his personal time on the road and to increase his time with his family."

The press release quoted Reid as saying that he was "grateful" to have worked at the IBHE and had found it a "delight to work with" the many people he had come into contact with during his two-year tenure.

Carrie Hightman, then-chairwoman of the IBHE board, was similarly effusive.

"The board is proud of the work of IBHE during Dr. Reid's tenure" and "thanks (him) for his contributions," Hightman said.

It was all a dirty, stinking lie designed to fool the public and the news media, a conspiracy of silence bought with $48,000 of taxpayer money that was not legally owed and presumably entombed by the destruction of evidence that might explain who wanted Reid hired and why. But complaints about the Reid affair found their way to the Office of the Executive Inspector General, who looked into what happened and recently issued a report (available here) laying out many of the dirty details.

The report found that:

— IBHE officials went to great lengths and expense to cover up Reid's firing.

— IBHE officials sought to shield their role in the cover-up by reluctantly cooperating with investigators before invoking lawyer-client confidentiality claims to ward off the probe.

The 16-page investigative report — plus another 30 pages of exhibits — demonstrates once again how deceitful government officials can be when they're trying to hide their mistakes.

In 2010, the IBHE, having just dispatched its previous executive director, Judy Erwin, for misconduct, needed to make a good hire to restore the agency's reputation. Why it hired Reid, then an education official in Maryland, will remain a mystery.

He submitted his application two days after the deadline to submit applications. He had been dismissed after four years as president of Kentucky State University for performance "deficiencies" and suspected abuse of public funds. Further, following his dismissal, Reid had demanded $3 million from the state of Kentucky to settle the dispute, ultimately accepting $170,000.

Hightman, the former IBHE board chairwoman, acknowledged to investigators that she was "well aware" of the accusations of misconduct against Reid at Kentucky State but minimized them because there had been no "judicial" finding against him. In other words, Reid had never been convicted of anything.

Hightman narrowed the list of applicants that included Reid and, along with four other IBHE board members, interviewed the top candidates. She told investigators that none of the board members had concerns about Reid's background, specifically his troubled tenure at Kentucky State.

But one unidentified board member told investigators that he was deeply concerned about Reid and had told Hightman that if Reid was hired he would be fired "within 18 months" and then threaten to sue IBHE.

"According to the former board member, Ms. Hightman responded that Dr. Reid would be IBHE's next executive director," the report states.

Hightman was correct. On Dec. 7, 2010, the board authorized Hightman to offer Reid the job, one that paid him $190,000 a year. On Sept. 25, 2012, in the face of Reid's impending dismissal, the board voted to destroy a tape recording of the meeting in which they decided to hire Reid.

Reid's tenure was a train wreck from the beginning. He was verbally abusive to underlings, prompting resignations from long-time employees. He took control of the IBHE's single state car, falsely claiming that it was his to use under his contract, and forcing employees to rent cars at public expense when they needed to travel.

Hightman later acknowledged the IBHE had become "dysfunctional."

"Ms. Hightman ... learned that Dr. Reid distanced himself from day-to-day office operations, yelled at employees and did not hold staff meetings," the report states.

Hightman sought to intervene, asking IBHE board member and former University of Illinois Trustee Frances Carroll to mentor Reid. Other than introduce Reid to other higher education leaders, Carroll provided no other mentoring to Reid. She must have decided it was unnecessary because, in her interview with investigators, Carroll attributed complaints about Reid's performance issues to "racist attitudes toward African-American leaders, although (Carroll) never observed any such behavior from IBHE employees."

A negative employee survey of Reid's performance was the straw that broke the camel's back. Hightman decided that Reid "could not be shaped into an effective manager" and that he either had to resign or be fired.

Under the terms of his contract, Reid was entitled to one month's salary — $16,000. But Hightman told investigators it was "imminently prudent" to offer him more to go quietly.

But prudent for whom? Reid could claim discrimination, but there was no evidence to support that. Still, Hightman said it would have "looked bad" to dismiss a black man.

Reid ultimately agreed to resign in exchange for an additional two months of salary — $32,000 — plus the one month's pay to which he was entitled — $16,000 — and ununsed vacation days — cost unknown.

With Reid on his way out the door, IBHE had to dress up his departure, specifically addressing the question of why he would be paid three months salary for no work when his contract allowed only one month severance. IBHE officials found their answer in subterfuge, the chimera of consulting duties.

"I want to make sure there was no press issues that he is being paid for services not performed," said IBHE lawyer Mary Patricia Burns, who was making sure no one would find out that Reid was being paid for services not performed.

Reid never provided any consulting services to the IBHE. He also refused to cooperate with the investigators.

On Oct. 30, 2012, Reid and Hightman signed the termination agreement. The next day, Oct. 31, the IBHE issued the phony press release.

"Dr. Reid to return to home base" in Maryland, its headline stated. At least the headline was accurate.

After being interviewed once in the company of her lawyer, Hightman refused to answer additional questions. IBHE's counsel declined to answer questions, citing attorney-client privilege. The IBHE board refused to turn over minutes of its executive session, citing various privileges.

Because of that, investigators said they were "unable to obtain additional information" relating to the unsupported $32,000 payment to Reid or the phony cover story about Reid's departure.

Ultimately, the inspector general found Reid's control of the state car was a violation of state law. It also asked the IBHE to "avoid agreeing to public statements ... that are not accurate and may be misleading." Investigators said that conduct is "not appropriate for publicly funded entities."

Although the report was scathing, it was subject to brief accounts in the news media. Beyond that, this matter is going nowhere. The inspector general's office said the case is "considered closed." In response to the report, the governor's office said it will "place a copy of this report in Dr. George Reid's personnel file" and will advise the IBHE board "to carefully examine public statements ... to ensure they are not perceived as inaccurate or misleading" and "explore the recommendation of creating a policy regarding" separation agreements and settlements.

In other words, nothing will happen. That's why the same thing will happen again.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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