Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Openness and Transparency At the University of Minnesota?

As someone who was stonewalled in his efforts to learn about the exact nature of the relationship between Leo Furcht, the University, and MCL, it is good to know that there are professionals at the Star-Tribune who are more dogged and stubborn than I am.

From the Strib's Whistleblower Blog comes the answer to the question:

How did the Star-Tribune get the disciplinary report for Leo Furcht out of the University?

U kept quiet about doctor’s disciplinary action, but public records spoke

Posted on December 23rd, 2008 – 11:33 AM
By James Shiffer

The story Sunday about the past ethics problems of the co-chair of a University of Minnesota ethics panel was an example of first-rate watchdog reporting by my colleagues Maura Lerner, Josephine Marcotty and Janet Moore.

The story also reflected the dogged effort by Lerner to extract public records from the University of Minnesota, after Marcotty got a tip that questions had been raised about a corporate grant for stem cell research at the university. University officials found several ways to avoid handing over a public record until Lerner wore them down.
Here’s the timeline:

Nov. 7: Lerner makes her first formal request to the U for audits involving Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, who had done research under the contract. She knew from her experience that audits are usually public records.

Nov. 14: The university responds: “The entire file is apparently attorney-client privileged information.”

Nov. 17: The university: “The University’s department of audits conducted a review under the direction of the Office of General Counsel, subject to the attorney-client privilege. It was not a regular audit. The report to the General Counsel’s Office is nonpublic under Minn. Stat. sec. 13.393.”

Nov. 17: Lerner responds to the university: “What is the difference between a review done by the department of audits, and an audit? What difference does it make who requests it?”

Nov. 21: The university: “Per your inquiry, the general counsel’s office is retrieving all of the old files to review whether there are public items that would not be considered attorney-client privileged materials. On second thought, they are thinking that not everything in the file is considered protected information. This was not a formal audit, but a request by the general counsel’s office for a review. There were no disciplinary actions as a result of it.”

Dec. 18: The university: “As far as what is public data, there has been no change to our position that the information you requested is considered attorney-client privileged data. Here is the statement I’ve been cleared to provide: The University’s Department of Audits, under the direction of the Office of the General Counsel, conducted a review of the Baxter contract. This was a legal review and not a formal administrative proceeding. Following that review, the Academic Health Center’s Conflict Review and Management Committee also did a review which resulted in disciplinary action against one employee, who was not Dr. Catherine Verfaillie.”

Dec. 18: New request from Lerner: “Any disciplinary action that resulted from the Academic Health Center’s Conflict Review and Management Committee review of the Baxter contract awarded to (or under the supervision of) Dr. Catherine Verfaillie.”

Finally, just before 5 p.m. Dec. 18, the university send the report by email. The subject was Dr. Leo Furcht, who was investigated and disciplined in 2004 based following a complaint by Verfaillie. Read the report here

Lerner, Marcotty and Moore finished reporting and wrote the story the following day. Four years after Furcht’s disciplinary action, the public finally found out about it. A Star Tribune editorial on the situation was published today.

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