Wise announced last week that she was resigning as chancellor, while accepting a teaching assignment and a $400,000 payment. UI the next day released e-mails showing that Wise and other top administrators had tried to hide their communications about Steven Salaita and other sensitive campus issues. But a committee of the UI board of trustees, apparently under pressure from Governor Bruce Rauner, yesterday said it would reject the resignation agreement and begin the process of firing Wise.
Does that mean the university is trying to distance itself from Wise because of fears about a possible criminal investigation? That is not clear at the moment, but online reports show Wise had been warned that civil and criminal penalties were a possibility if she and other administrators tried to conceal their official communications by using private e-mail accounts.
The latest revelations from Illinois raise questions about the possibility that someone engaged in criminal conduct related to my termination in 2008 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)--either by concealing evidence, influencing U.S. Judge William M. Acker Jr. to unlawfully deny discovery in my discrimination/First Amendment lawsuit, or both.
What about warnings regarding possible criminal sanctions at UI? Wise and other top administrators received such a warning last September, according to a report from Ali Abunimah at the blog electronicintifada.net. From Abunimah's report:
In an 18 September 2014 email related to Salaita, Chancellor Wise wrote from her private account that university spokesperson Robin Kaler “has warned me and others not to use email since we are now in litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”
The very next day, university employees connected with the Salaita matter, undoubtedly including Wise and others participating in the secret email exchanges, received a warning called a legal hold from the university’s external law firm Perkins Coie.
The Electronic Intifada obtained a copy of the legal hold and ran it in full at the bottom of its August 11, 2015, post. Here is more from Abunimah:
A legal hold is standard practice any time litigation is expected and its existence indicates that the outside counsel were being diligent.
Headlined in capitals, “Important legal notice for your immediate attention,” it warns that “Failure to comply with this Notice could subject you and the University to civil and criminal penalties.”
The document reveals that Salaita’s lawyers informed the university’s counsel on 16 September 2014 of their intention to file a lawsuit.
The detailed four-page memo warns emphatically: “Under no circumstances should you delete potentially relevant emails from your computer or from the network server.”
UI released 1,100 previously hidden e-mails last Friday, indicating Wise and others ignored the warning.
Another report comes from Andrew Scheinman, Ph.D., J.D., an attorney who has played a pivotal role in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that brought the UI e-mail scandal to light. At his investigative online site Samizdat-Startups.org, Scheinman presents evidence that Wise likely was advised of her duty to preserve evidence even earlier than September 2014. Explains Abunimah:
[Scheinman] notes that soon after a 24 July 2014 board meeting at which Salaita was discussed, the name of Scott Rice, the university’s in-house counsel, begins appearing in Salaita-related emails previously released to him under FOIA. Everything in the emails is redacted except for Rice’s name.
“This kind of redaction – nothing but the attorney’s name – indicates UIUC is likely claiming attorney client privilege, which it would only do if they were discussing, e.g., a litigation matter such as likely litigation by Salaita,” Scheinman told The Electronic Intifada.
The fact that Wise and other officials expected, or should have expected, litigation long before the formal legal hold was sent out suggests they already had a legal duty to preserve evidence during a period when Wise admitted to deleting emails.
“I would think Rice would have taken great pains to point out to Wise early on his – Rice’s – duty to UIUC – his client – to prevent any UIUC employees including Wise from destroying documents,” Scheinman said.
“My conclusion is that Wise was likely advised of possible or likely litigation as early as 25 July 2014,” Scheinman added.
What does this tell us about the situation at the University of Illinois? It could mean that the ugliness related to a cover-up in the Stephen Salaita case is just beginning, with the looming possibility that the campus' former chief executive will face criminal charges.
The Salaita case shows that higher-education officials can take extraordinarily dumb, unethical (and maybe unlawful) steps when they are dealing with an employee they knowingly have cheated out of a job. What happened to the evidence that UAB should have been forced to turn over in my lawsuit? What would a FOIA request show about UAB officials and their behind-the-scenes actions in my case? Were UAB officials involved in a possible criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice and encourage Acker to make unlawful rulings in my case?
In other words, did UAB officials engage in a cover-up similar to the one at the University of Illinois? Is it possible that a UAB scheme was even more evil than the one at UI because it led all the way to a federal judge?