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U of L Foundation Wrongly Withheld Public Records, Attorney General Rules

AG ruling2
Attorney General ruling

The University of Louisville Foundation violated the law in withholding public records from WFPL's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, according to new rulings from Attorney General Andy Beshear's office.

The rulings state that the university's foundation failed to respond and provide documents that were due under the Open Records Act, and presented no evidence as to why it couldn't comply with the requests.

This is the latest in the foundation's repeated attempts to stonewall our newsroom's efforts to access public information and documents. Now, the state's top attorney has deemed its actions illegal in a ruling that has the force of law.

Since February, we have sought staff lists, ethics and financial disclosure forms and a year's worth of payroll records from the foundation.

The foundation -- a nonprofit corporation that holds, invests and designates funds on behalf of the university -- is a public agency and "the public has a legitimate interest" in its functions, Kentucky’s Supreme Court has determined.

The foundation initially denied our request, claiming it "was overly broad and blanket in nature.” We tried to cooperate, winnowing down our request to four years of public records. But since April, the foundation's records custodian, Kenyatta Martin, and its attorney have failed to provide the records or even respond to our phone calls and emails. (Attorney David Saffer is a board member of Louisville Public Media.)

We appealed to Beshear's office, prompting the rulings released Monday. The foundation has one month to appeal the decisions.

This is not an isolated case. Our newsroom has at least four other pending appeals related to U of L or the foundation’s failures to provide records.

The purpose of the Open Records Act is clear: Public records should be made available to the public quickly and expediently.

Nonetheless, when dealing with U of L and the foundation, it's an adventure of interminable delays, obfuscation, missed deadlines and more. We are left with no options but to appeal to the attorney general. It's become routine.

Last month, KyCIR's Kate Howard received a response from Beshear's office that a decision in a records matter had been delayed "due to an unmanageable increase in the number of appeals" received by the attorney general. That workload has increased, in part, due to the actions of U of L and the foundation.

In 2014, we fought for the release of a financial auditor's review that the university tried to keep secret. We won a favorable attorney general’s ruling, but the university still fought us, so we filed a lawsuit. We eventually settled that case, winning access to and publishing the audit, which determined the public institution is susceptible to fraud and inappropriate disbursements, among other shortcomings.

When KyCIR filed that lawsuit, I explained that we believe information about the financial health of a public university is in the public's interest. That's never more true than today.

In the last month alone, a court ruling has deemed the Board of Trustees illegal, the school’s president resigned but stayed atop the foundation and the university’s $1.2 billion budget remains unapproved and in flux. Classes start in two weeks.

KyCIR Managing Editor Brendan McCarthy can be reached at bmccarthy@kycir.org or (502) 814.6541.

This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Disclosure: In October 2014, the University of Louisville, which for years has donated to Louisville Public Media, earmarked $10,000 to KyCIR as part of a larger LPM donation. Stephen Campbell and Sandra Frazier, who have served on the university board, have donated to KyCIR. 

Brendan McCarthy is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.