EKU to appeal attorney general's ruling on release of Hoskins documents

Debra Hoskins, shown on Sept. 23, 2011, at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.
Debra Hoskins, shown on Sept. 23, 2011, at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.

Eastern Kentucky University, which said Monday it would comply with a decision by the state Attorney General's Office that it must release personnel documents regarding former EKU Center for the Arts director Debra Hoskins, is now refusing to release the documents and is appealing the decision.

"The university's initial intention was to comply with the attorney general's opinion by releasing the requested records," a statement from EKU said. "However, upon further review and at the urging of Ms. Hoskins' attorney, the university will be appealing the attorney general's ruling."

The statement said that under the open-records law, only the Richmond university or the Herald-Leader, which initially requested the documents, could appeal the decision.

The statement said, "Further, to ensure Ms. Hoskins can directly advocate her interests in this matter, the university will also ask the court for a declaration of rights and make Ms. Hoskins a party to that part of the action."

Hoskins' attorney, Ephraim W. Helton of Danville, said making Hoskins "a party to the action is the proper way to proceed."

He said, "Debra and Eastern Kentucky University entered into a settlement agreement which resolved all issues between them regarding the separation of her employment, and that agreement specifically set forth that all the terms and conditions set forth in the agreement would remain confidential.

"At this juncture, we believe Eastern has an obligation to defend the agreement, and it's our desire that it remain confidential as to financial terms, and we believe her personnel file should not be subject to public disclosure."

Herald-Leader attorney Kif H. Skidmore said, "EKU appears to be constrained by its termination arrangement with Hoskins; however, the law is clear that public employees and agencies cannot circumvent the Open Records Act by signing confidentiality agreements."

The Herald-Leader submitted an open-records request for documents pertinent to the matter on June 20. EKU provided many documents, including financial reports and board minutes, but denied records including Hoskins' evaluations, performance appraisals, letters of commendation and letters of reprimand, and the June 12 termination letter and severance agreement citing a confidentiality agreement signed by Hoskins and the university.

Monday's opinion, which carries the weight of law, said that according to the Kentucky Open Records Act, confidentiality agreements did not trump the public's right to know about the operations of a public agency. EKU is a public university.

"As the matter currently stands, there is an issue of transparency regarding Ms. Hoskins' departure that can only be resolved by disclosure of internal audits of the center she directed and personnel records relating to her performance as director," the opinion states. Kentucky law "does not authorize non-disclosure of these records, and EKU's reliance on the exception to support the confidentiality clause in its agreement and release was misplaced."

Asked about the attorney general's opinion, Helton said, "At this juncture, we think it's overly broad. At some point, we may be able to reach some sort of accord to narrow the scope of it. But when we look at the statute, anything that's likely to bring someone into some sort of unwarranted invasion of privacy is prohibited, and we believe that's what would happen if there were disclosure of her personnel file."

Hoskins was hired as the EKU Center's director with much ballyhoo in February 2011, when the center was in its final stages of construction and oversaw the venue during its inaugural season. Over nearly two decades, she had worked in several capacities at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, including assistant director, before she resigned in December 2010. She had applied to be the Norton Center's director after the departure of longtime leader George Foreman, but she was passed over for the job.

After a little more than a year directing the new $33 million arts center at EKU, Hoskins resigned June 19. Minutes from a special meeting of the center's community operations board on June 14 revealed that on June 12, Hoskins was delivered a letter of termination from the university.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader