Tom Eblen

Student journalists stand up to UK, show importance of open records law

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto is appealing several attorney general rulings against UK on open records and open meetings law issues.
University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto is appealing several attorney general rulings against UK on open records and open meetings law issues. cbertram@herald-leader.com

One of the most important things journalists do is hold powerful people and institutions accountable to the public.

So it has warmed my heart to see the young journalists at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s independent student newspaper, hold UK administrators’ feet to the fire.

When a professor resigned in February amid allegations of sexual harassment, the Kernel used the state’s open-records law to ask for documents from the university’s investigation. UK officials refused. The students appealed to the attorney general, whose opinions in open-records and open-meetings cases have the force of law.

Attorney General Andy Beshear ruled in the Kernel’s favor after UK officials refused to obey the law and submit the documents for his review. Beshear said the records should be released so long as information identifying the victims was blacked out.

UK said last week it would appeal that ruling to Fayette Circuit Court.

“When we make decisions about what records we share with the public, we are guided by the values we cherish, acknowledging that sometimes the values of safeguarding the privacy of members of our community and the need for transparency in the operations of public entities such as ours can be in tension with one another,” President Eli Capilouto wrote in a campus-wide email.

Apparently, UK’s cherished values don’t include obeying laws it finds inconvenient.

Things got more interesting when a source gave the Kernel the withheld documents. The newspaper published a story Saturday but did not identify the victims, two of whom told the newspaper they wanted the documents made public because they thought UK was improperly protecting James Harwood, a former associate professor of entomology.

The documents revealed allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment, and they involved five victims in two complaints related to alleged incidents over a three-year period, the Kernel reported.

UK’s investigation concluded that there was “enough evidence for a reasonable person to believe the alleged behavior occurred” and recommended that the case be referred to a university disciplinary board. Before that could happen, Harwood, who denied any wrongdoing, was allowed to resign in February without stated cause and continue to receive his $109,900 annual salary and benefits for many more months.

UK plans to continue its appeal, saying the issue should be settled in court. Administrators claim that secrecy is necessary to protect the privacy of any victims who might come forward in future cases.

But there is another way to view it: Secrecy protects UK administrators from scrutiny and the university’s reputation from bad publicity. If UK loses its appeal, the courts should make it pay every dime of the Kernel’s legal expenses.

UK’s position might be more credible if it were not a serial abuser of open-records and open-meetings laws. The attorney general has ruled against UK in at least five recent cases, several of which the university is appealing. Those include a case involving the Herald-Leader, in which the attorney general found that UK violated the Open Meetings Act when it conducted business but did not keep minutes at a board of trustees dinner.

UK is hardly alone in hiding information from the public. The University of Louisville has an even worse record. Many government agencies cherish secrecy and value the arrogant belief that laws and policies that promote transparency and accountability don’t apply to them.

When Steve Beshear was governor, officials in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services fought for years to hide information about how they handled cases involving children who died or were severely injured by abuse or neglect. An appeals court called that stonewalling “egregious,” and the state had to pay a $250,000 penalty and $449,000 in legal fees to the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal.

That prompted newly elected Gov. Matt Bevin to declare that his administration would be more transparent. Time will tell.

Kentuckians have been well-served by the open-meetings law, passed in 1974, and the open-records law, enacted two years later. The attorney general’s office and the courts have generally done an excellent job of enforcing them.

Kentucky’s laws strike a good balance between public transparency and personal privacy, but they could use some expanding. For example, the General Assembly is overdue in bringing more transparency to troubled public employee pension funds by revealing information about investment contracts, fees and commissions.

Citizens have the right to know most of what public servants do in their name with their money. It’s a value all Kentuckian should cherish.

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