The names and résumés of all 35 candidates considered during LSU’s secret presidential search are public records that should be released, attorneys for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune wrote Thursday in urging Louisiana’s top court to overturn an appellate court decision that would make public only a small portion of documents.
The newspapers’ attorneys contend a three-judge panel of the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal erred in ruling Dec. 30 that information from only the finalists — three people interviewed and a fourth person who withdrew from the process — must be turned over.
District Judge Janice Clark, in 2013, had ordered LSU to turn over the names of finalists and other candidates in its presidential search. That search culminated that year with the selection of F. King Alexander, former president of California State University in Long Beach, California.
The newspapers’ attorneys argue that the 1st Circuit’s decision “frustrates” the purpose of the Louisiana Public Records Act, which is to ensure the public is informed on matters of public interest.
“The President of LSU holds an important position; indeed, it commands a state-funded salary that is greater than that of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Secretary of State combined,” Advocate attorney Scott Sternberg and Times-Picayune attorney Lori Mince argue in the appeal filed Thursday at the state Supreme Court. “Public interest in what at the time was the biggest hiring decision in the State of Louisiana was understandably high.”
Thursday was the deadline for either side to seek relief from the high court. LSU decided not to seek review, said Jimmy Faircloth, the LSU Board of Supervisors’ attorney in the case.
The Advocate, which has been trying to get the records associated with LSU’s presidential search since February 2013, filed suit April 1, 2013, after the board refused to release them. The Times-Picayune joined the case a week later.
Then-Advocate reporter Koran Addo asked for public records from the search, including the names of the 35 candidates the board considered. The board denied the request, claiming it was required to provide information only on those who applied for the position and Alexander was the only “applicant.” The board said the other 34 candidates never applied.
Clark disagreed and ordered the board to produce the information on all 35 candidates. The board appealed.
In its ruling last month, the 1st Circuit panel said the 35 candidates were part of a “broad wish list” compiled by the search committee and may not actually have consented or sought to be considered for the position.
Only the four finalists who agreed to interviews or formally withdrew from the process took affirmative steps showing their intent to become “applicants,” the panel ruled. A fifth potential finalist who took a job elsewhere during LSU’s search did not rise to the level of applicant.
The newspapers’ attorneys argue in their filing Thursday that LSU knew the law did not permit it to conduct its search in secret.
“Nonetheless, LSU deliberately designed its search with an eye towards avoiding public scrutiny in violation of the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Law,” the attorneys wrote.
The Open Meetings Law was circumvented by search committee members being polled by telephone about the selection of finalists for the position, the papers’ attorneys argue. And when the full board interviewed Alexander, the attorneys say, it intentionally held two interviews, one after the other, with half of the board attending each.
The committee also violated the Open Meetings Law by voting in executive session to recommend to the full board one finalist — Alexander — for the combined president and chancellor position, the papers’ attorneys claim. That law prohibits votes in executive session, the attorneys note.
Clark, who sits on the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, ultimately held the LSU board and its then-Chairman Hank Danos in contempt of court for not turning over the records as she had ordered. She fined LSU $500 a day for each day the records are not produced. The 1st Circuit reversed that part of the judge’s ruling, too, as it did her award of civil penalties. The appeals court found the board was not arbitrary or unreasonable in responding to the newspapers’ initial records requests.
The newspapers are not asking the Supreme Court to review those components of the decision by the 1st Circuit panel.