Monday, August 10, 2015

Efforts to hide e-mails lead to resignation of U of Illinois exec, drawing parallels to my firing at UAB

Phyllis Wise
(from USA Today)
The chancellor of the University of Illinois has resigned amid an investigation that revealed efforts to hide e-mails and withhold documents  about her decision to rescind a job offer to a would-be professor who had criticized Israel in statements on social media.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise's decision to step down last Thursday is the latest chapter in the story of Steven Salaita, who was offered a faculty position in UI's Department of American Indian Studies only to have it withdrawn when university boosters complained about his statements on Twitter regarding Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip.

UI released 1,100 e-mails last Friday involving the Salaita case and other sensitive campus matters. The evidence showed that senior university administrators, including Wise, had used personal e-mail accounts in an apparent effort to avoid public scrutiny.

Salaita, a Palestinian-American who previously taught at Virginia Tech, filed a lawsuit that now looks like it could be headed to a federal jury, possibly inflicting more embarrassment and financial pain on the university; UI already has spent $843,000 to defend the lawsuit. Professors around the country have criticized UI's actions in the Salaita case, calling it an infringement on academic freedom of speech. Now we have evidence that the university's chief executive and others were using private e-mail accounts to hide communications from those who might seek their release under public-records laws.

How ugly, and expensive, will this get for the University of Illinois? That remains to be seen, but the Salaita case is emitting the kind of foul odor that arose in May 2008 when I was unlawfully terminated from the publications office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), after almost 20 years on the job. As I've reported numerous times here, e-mails and other forms of internal (and external) communications almost certainly would reveal who caused my termination and why.

The public record shows that I did not engage in any misconduct or policy violations that remotely would have merited termination--in fact, UAB's own grievance committee found I should not have been terminated, but former director of human resources Cheryl E.H. Locke and former president Carol Garrison upheld my firing anyway. This indicates someone--much like the Illinois boosters who complained about Salaita's tweets--was uncomfortable with my reporting on this blog about the prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman.

Steven Salaita
(from Chicago Tonight)
I'm not just guessing about that; the head of UAB's employee relations division admitted to me in a taped phone conversation that I was targeted because of my reporting on the Siegelman case. (A video that includes that phone conversation can be viewed at the end of this post.) Ironically, the sensitive Siegelman posts largely involved criticism of U.S. Judge Mark Fuller, who resigned on August 1 after revelations that, in an apparent alcoholic rage, he had beaten his wife last summer at an Atlanta hotel.

In other words, I was fired because my reporting, which proved to be accurate and way ahead of its time, showed that a federal judge was corrupt and unfit to sit on the bench. There is little doubt that someone connected to former Republican governor Bob Riley engineered my firing because Fuller's unlawful actions were designed to destroy Riley's chief political opponent, Don Siegelman.

The entire country now knows my reporting about Fuller--done on my own time, with my own resources--was on target. But I'm still out of a job. Never mind that I was a government employee, and my speech, like Stephen Salaita's, was protected under the First Amendment.

UAB "caught a break" when my federal lawsuit just happened to fall in the lap of U.S. Judge William M. Acker Jr., an 87-year-old Reagan appointee who told me in open court that he was going to cheat me. Acker then did just that by violating black-letter law to grant the university summary judgment, even though no discovery had been conducted in the case--and no discovery schedule had been set. I notified the court in three separate motions that discovery was outstanding (in fact, it hadn't been conducted at all), but Acker dismissed my case anyway--and that ensured any UAB e-mails that would have proven my case remained under wraps, not unlike the way Chancellor Wise tried to do it at the University of Illinois. The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Acker's bogus rulings in a "Do Not Publish" opinion that violated its own long-standing precedents.

U.S. Judge Harry D. Leinenweber is hearing Salaita's case, and Leinenweber apparently takes his oath to uphold the law at least somewhat seriously. He already has ruled that UI had contractual obligations when it offered Salaita a faculty position. That means Chancellor Wise's resignation could be just the first of many embarrassments for UI. It means large chunks of taxpayer dollars--plus funds from the university's insurers--could be paid to settle a dispute that never should have happened in the first place. And it means that Stephen Salaita, if he wants to, likely will be gainfully employed at UI long after the administrators and boosters who tried to cheat him have come and gone.

How have UI's actions against Salaita been viewed in academia? Not well, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune:

The harshest criticism against Wise focused on the decision last summer to withdraw a job offer to professor Steven Salaita after he made a series of critical and profane comments about Israel on social media. U. of I. rescinded Salaita's offer for a tenured faculty position in the American Indian studies department weeks before he was scheduled to start teaching.

That decision led to much fallout, including a recent censure by the American Association of University Professors, a prominent professors group, which said U. of I. violated the principles of academic freedom. More than a dozen U. of I. academic departments voted no confidence in Wise's leadership, and faculty across the country have boycotted the campus and canceled events there. Salaita has filed a federal lawsuit alleging breach of contract and violation of his free speech rights.

What does the Salaita case teach us about the UAB cheat job that cost me my career? It's too early to say for sure; the Salaita case remains a long way from a trial date. But this much seems clear: Chancellor Wise's downfall started when several unnamed individuals sought e-mails and other documents under Illinois' Freedom of Information law. In fact, Salaita has filed a state-court lawsuit alleging that UI violated the state's open records law.

Alabama has a similar law--the Alabama Open Records Law--and it's designed to shine light on the communications of public employees in their official positions. That would include UAB employees, perhaps including one or more trustees, who signed off on my termination.

Such an open-records request spelled doom for Chancellor Wise's administrative career at UI. Perhaps a similar request in my case will cause heads to roll at the University of Alabama.


Anonymous said...

Maybe people with Ph.Ds aren't all that smart.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, LS. I work in academia, and I've been following this story for a while. Your readers might want to know that UI administrators for quite some time denied that the Salaita job offer was withdrawn because of his comments about Israel. The private e-mails, now released, show that was a lie.

legalschnauzer said...

Oh yes, @9:57, UI even tried the "it's not what he said, it's how he said it" excuse. I think Salaita used a naughty word or two in his tweets, so UI took the stance that it couldn't tolerate a job offer to someone who didn't engage in "civil" discourse.

Never mind that administrators were lying their butts off the whole time. I guess lies are considered part of "civil" discourse--as long as we lie and stab people between the shoulder blades in a nice way.

Anonymous said...

I assume some of the boosters who complained were Jewish?

legalschnauzer said...

Yes, @10:38, that's my understanding. It's not clear that they were all Jewish. In fact, it's not clear how many people complained. One article I saw indicated many of the complaints sounded alike, as if they were part of a coordinated effort by, perhaps, a small group of people.

Day Tripper said...

Looks like the U of Illinois chancellor gets to keep her cushy teaching job, benefits, retirement, etc. So she really isn't being punished all that much. Why hasn't she been fired?

legalschnauzer said...

You ask a very good question, DT. I don't think there's any question that a regular UI employee, who engaged in that kind of dishonesty, would have been fired. My guess is that Wise, and others, still might be fired, depending on information that is revealed as the Salaita lawsuit moves forward.

Anonymous said...

Is it not OK for Jewish people to complain about the hiring of an anti-semitic professor with public tax dollars.

legalschnauzer said...

I'm sure many would argue, @11:01, that being critical of Israel's policies does not necessarily make one anti-semitic.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the former UI chancellor has plagiarism issues in her background:

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that Israel is portrayed as THE democracy of the Middle East, but its supporters try to trample democratic principles in the U.S.

Twilight said...

It seems UI was obsessed with "civility," while completely ignoring the idea of "integrity."

Anonymous said...

If I were you, I would file an open-records request against UAB, stat. That apparently was what broke open the case at U of Illinois. I'm betting the same kind of request will break open your UAB case--unless, of course, you get stonewalled.

James Dean said...

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

In one email, Wise told another employee she was purposely avoiding the university’s email system.

“We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses,” Wise wrote. “I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”

Wise admits to a coverup and then admits to destroying evidence. How does she still have a job anywhere in that system?

legalschnauzer said...

Thanks for pointing that out, JD. That's about as incriminating as an e-mail can get.