UO public records temp tells all

Among the many interesting parts of Josh Hunt’s “The University of Nike” book is this, which is even more relevant now that General Counsel Kevin Reed controls UO’s public records office:

Early in 2011, Lisa Thornton took a job as an assistant in the public-records office at the University of Oregon. A decade and a half earlier, Thomas Hager’s News Bureau had been the office responsible for answering many requests for public records, which public universities produce constantly—emails, contracts, budgets, and virtually anything else generated by university employees are considered public-records, which are subject to the Freedom of Information Act and Oregon’s generous open records laws.

Gradually, more and more public-records requests went through Melinda Grier’s office, earning her a reputation for keeping secret records that were meant to be public. In response to calls for greater transparency, a single public records office was created, with two full-time employees to handle all records requests, which mostly came from journalists. After just a few months on the job, Thornton was thrust into a leadership role when her boss suddenly quit, and she found herself in need of an assistant to do the job she’d been doing. The university called a local temporary work agency called Personnel Source, which sent a recent college graduate named Antonia Noori Farzan. Farzan was hired after a brief interview and began working in October 2011.

… The university’s public-relations department would sometimes instruct the public-records office not to release a record, or to delay its release until they said it was okay. Requests related to Nike, the NCAA, or the faculty union were among those automatically flagged for review by the public-relations department. …

“We agreed to let them know about any request that was related to a major scandal,” Farzan said. The university’s public-relations department would sometimes instruct the public-records office not to release a record, or to delay its release until they said it was okay.

Requests related to Nike, the NCAA, or the faculty union were among those automatically flagged for review by the public-relations department. Eventually, Thornton’s office became even more stingy with public records.

“If there was a request from a professional journalist asking for anything more detailed than someone’s salary or the contract for a new hire, Lisa just assumed that the topic was controversial and would flag it,” Farzan said. Controversial topics were also of special interest to Randy Geller and Douglas Park in the office of the general counsel. Thornton and Farzan cc’d Geller and Park on records requests that might prove harmful to the university’s image or upsetting to important donors or corporate partners.

When they didn’t want some public record to be released, they had ways of making sure that it wasn’t. One way of doing this was to take advantage of the fact that the school is allowed to charge requesters a fee for their records based on the cost of gathering and preparing them; by claiming the records required legal review, inflating the time it might take to conduct that review, and applying the same hourly fee they might charge a corporate client for their legal services, Geller and Park could offer to release a batch of records only if the requester was willing to pay some astronomical sum.

… More than making journalists pay, Farzan said, Thornton loved giving them nothing at all. “Lisa’s policy was not to give out information if she could find any reason to withhold it,” Farzan said.

I’d say this is a bit unfair to Ms Thornton. During the brief period when Richard Lariviere decided UO should be more transparent, she was quite able and willing to produce public records without fees or delays – for example Jim Bean’s employment contract, which she produced in 24 hours, just in time for the Senate Executive Committee meeting at which we told George Pernsteiner that Bean would not be an acceptable interim president.

Ms Grier was fired by UO President Lariviere, and Randy Geller was fired by President Gottfredson. But new UO President Schill’s General Counsel Kevin Reed has kept Doug Park on as his Senior Associate General Counsel, and Lisa Thornton as his Public Records officer. Under Kevin Reed, UO’s public records office is even worse than Ms Farzan describes above.

Ms Farzan went on to an award winning career as a journalist, and is now at the Washington Post. I recommend her fascinating story on how the Sears Roebuck Catalog and mail-order sales helped break the back of racist southern shopkeepers, here.

At Josh Hunt’s talk at Tsunami Books last week he read this passage and told how he’d met Farzan. The Columbia Journalism School had invited him to talk to  their incoming students about how he was turning a short assignment as an NY Times stringer on the 2014 basketball rape allegations into a book, and Farzan happened to be one of the new students. She came up to him after his talk and told him she had some information he might be interested in.

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