Updated: Wise fallout: UI releases ethics inquiry into personal email accounts

 

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Certain administrative officials at the University of Illinois used personal email to conduct university business and failed to turn over those documents during Freedom of Information Act requests, a violation of university policy, a UI probe has found.

The news comes one day after Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced her resignation as chancellor. The personal emails released by the university included many from Wise, but a university spokesman declined to say whether the ethics investigation led to her departure.

In one March 19 email from her personal account about the proposed Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Wise indicated she was trying to deliberately avoid FOIA disclosure.

"I may be getting paranoid," she wrote, "but since someone has FOIed all of the emails that Laura Frerichs has exchanged between herself and the internal and external advisory board members with regards to the COM, I am using my personal email and sending it to (redacted) personal email."

In a September 2014 email regarding the Steven Salaita lawsuit, Wise wrote that campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler "has warned me and others not to use email since we are now in litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending," Wise said.

According to a release, there were 10 requests under the Freedom of Information Act from eight separate requesters that were not properly filled because business conducted on private emails was not given out.

The topics covered in the requests were Salaita, James Kilgore and the College of Medicine.

The emails regarding the Carle-Illinois College of Medicine are here. (63 MB, 773 pages)

The emails regarding Steven Salaita are here. (27 MB, 294 pages)

The emails regarding James Kilgore are here. 6.4 MB , 33 pages)

After the university learned about the personal emails, an official ethics inquiry was launched in late April by University Counsel, University Ethics and Compliance and external legal firm Jones Day, which was also used to investigate inflated student profile data at the College of Law. The inquiry covered 2014 and 2015. The university paid Jones Day $175,000 for its work.

"A desire to maintain confidentiality on certain sensitive University-related topics was one reason personal email accounts were used to communicate about these topics," the release said.

"Some emails suggested that individuals were encouraged to use personal email accounts for communicating on such topics," the release said.

UI spokesman Tom Hardy said the emails cover more than just the emails released by the University, but he did not believe those were subject to any FOIA requests.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act defines public records, including electronic communications, as all documents "pertaining to the transaction of public business, regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body."

It does not address whether that includes personal emails, and case law is unclear on the issue.

Hardy said The News-Gazette’s lawsuit vs. the City of Champaign showed it could be public record, but it does not directly answer whether personal emails by UI employees are subject to FOIA. In that lawsuit, the city was forced to release text messages by council members during council meetings because they were public records.

Hardy said he doesn't know whether there will be any more resignations as a result of the inquiry.

Wise could not be reached for comment Friday. In her resignation announcement, she said that "external issues" over the last 12 months had become a distraction from her work as chancellor.

Among the emails about Steven Salaita:

— At the end of one email discussing a video to recruit a new UI president, Wise said to Provost Ilesanmi Adesida: "This place is so messed up."

— Wise consulted with Burbules and Tolliver about a guest commentary for The News-Gazette in support of her.

— Wise consulted with local businessman Habeeb Habeeb about a guest commentary for The News-Gazette in support of her.

— Wise consulted with her son, Andrew, a Washington D.C. attorney about remarks regarding the Salaita case.

Among the emails about the College of Medicine:

— In an exchange with Kaler, Wise asked whether a dropbox would protect documents from FOIA disclosure. Kaler said it didn't but "does reduce the number of electronic copies floating around campus." She said the documents in question were protected from FOIA because they were drafts, but at some point the final versions would be subject to disclosure.

— In a memo from Wise describing a March 2014 meeting with former board chairman Chris Kennedy about the proposed Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Kennedy criticized her for setting up meetings with individual trustees about the plan. Wise had met with Pam Strobel and Patrick Fitzgerald, among others.

"I did not tell him which Board members I had spoken with, but I suspect he knows. He said that talking with individual trustees was the worst kind of governance. I pointed out that if I spoke with more than two at a time, it would fall under the Open Meetings Act requirement," Wise wrote.

— In the same memo, Kennedy told her Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual would be against the plan and wanted his own strong College of Engineering in Chicago and "does not want to depend upon Urbana-Champaign." "He said that if Rauner gets elected the two will team up and get this done — if not at UIC at Northwestern."

— Kennedy also told Wise that UI Chicago could lose out on research money if Urbana set up its own medical school and that she needed to get top health administrators there on her side. "He said 'buy them out,'" Wise said.

— In a separate email to a supporter, Wise also said she didn't tell Kennedy that she had met with several politicians about the plan, including Senate President John Cullerton. "I didn't want him to think that he was the last person to know," she said.

 

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).