Order to release records ignored
A state judge delivered a dramatic rebuke to LSU’s Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, finding the board and its chairman, Hank Danos, in contempt of court for ignoring her order to make public the records from its secret presidential search.
State District Judge Janice Clark on April 30 ordered the Board of Supervisors to turn over the records to The Advocate and The Times-Picayune. The Advocate sued after the university board refused to release the records, and The Times-Picayune joined the case a week later.
On Wednesday, Clark found that the board violated that order and fined LSU $500 a day for each day the records are not produced.
“The court finds that the conduct complained of is contemptuous,” the judge said.
She said the public is entitled to know whom the LSU board considered in its search so that taxpayers can be confident the school made the best choice and considered candidates from all backgrounds.
LSU’s search for a new president ended in March with the selection of F. King Alexander, former president of California State University in Long Beach, Calif.
Advocate reporter Koran Addo asked for public records from the search, including the names of the 35 semifinalists the board considered.
The board denied the request, claiming it was only required to provide information on those who applied for the position and Alexander was the only “applicant.”
The panel said the other 34 semifinalists never applied.
But Clark ruled the records are indeed public and ordered the board to turn them over to The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.
The LSU board sought review by the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, but last month that court refused to overturn Clark’s order.
Lori Mince, who represents the newspapers, told the judge that the LSU board and Danos are in contempt of the judge’s April 30 order, plain and simple.
“There is no stay in effect. The Board of Supervisors and its chairman are in contempt of court,” she told the judge.
Mince, who said prompt access to public information is a hallmark of the state’s Public Records Act, asked the judge to impose a fine sufficiently large that it means something to LSU. She did not specify a sum.
Clark set the amount at $500, and Mince said after the hearing that the fine has reached $46,000 as of Wednesday. It has been 106 days since Clark ordered the board to turn over the records.
Except for a 14-day stay Clark granted the board to seek review from the 1st Circuit, the board has been in contempt every one of those days.
LSU’s attorney, Jimmy Faircloth, said he advised the board not to comply with the judge’s order because turning the records over would leave the panel unable to continue appealing, since the issue of whether the records can remain confidential would be moot.
“I understand your authority. There is no willful disobedience here,” Faircloth told Clark. “It’s an impossible position for my client.”
Faircloth said the school will continue to appeal Clark’s ruling as well as the contempt citation.
He said a severe sanction is unwarranted.
“We do understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.
Mince called the $500-a-day sanction appropriate.
“I just want them to produce the records,” she added.
The money would be paid to the court, not to the newspapers or their reporters.
Faircloth has argued in previous hearings that the confidentiality of the search was necessary to ensure LSU attracted the best pool of candidates, and Alexander has endorsed that view.
In a separate suit, state District Judge Tim Kelley ruled against the editor of LSU’s student newspaper, who also was seeking release of records in the search for a president. That ruling was not appealed.