Judge wants explanation for disparity in LSU president search records

The LSU Board of Supervisors claimed it considered 35 semifinalists in its secret presidential search, but when the records were turned over to a state district judge, there were fewer names, a court hearing Thursday revealed.

State District Judge Janice Clark said she would give the board and R. William Funk and Associates, a Dallas consulting firm that helped the panel make its decision in March, time to fax additional information to her so she does not have to subpoena the material — something the judge said she will not hesitate to do.

“There is a disparity that needs to be explained to this court,” Clark said to Jimmy Faircloth, the board’s attorney.

The names were turned over to the judge under a settlement between the board and The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.

The newspapers filed suit, claiming the search violated the state Public Records Law and Clark agreed and ordered the board to surrender the records.

The board refused and remained in contempt of court for four months until turning the records over to the judge last week.

The records remain under seal, and so attorneys did not disclose how many names were included. Faircloth said 35 was an approximate number and the actual total could be smaller by 10 or so.

On Thursday, the board and the newspapers returned to court so Clark could decide on legal fees and penalties owed to the newspapers because of LSU’s violation of the Public Records Law.

Clark said LSU must pay both The Advocate and The Times-Picayune a $100 daily penalty from March 21 — the date of The Advocate’s formal public records request — “until such time as all the documents are finally and fully delivered.”

“That should address the disparity,” the judge added.

That means LSU owes each newspaper $12,600, said Alysson Mills, one of the newspapers’ attorneys.

Clark also ordered LSU to pay the newspapers’ attorney’s fees and costs. Mills said the costs are $7,000. She argued for $36,400 in attorney’s fees, but Clark’s ruling nearly doubled that sum.

The judge said the specter of attorney’s fees is meant to “encourage public agencies to keep their records open and accessible to the public.”

Clark slapped the board with fines last month totaling roughly $63,000 for being in contempt of court for not turning over the records she ordered released in late April.

Now that Clark has ruled on attorney’s fees, costs and damages, Faircloth said he will file an appeal with the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, which would suspend Clark’s judgment if granted by the appellate court.

Clark on Thursday found LSU in violation of a 2001 settlement that came in another public records suit filed by The Advocate to get information about candidates for the school’s athletic director post.

State District Judge Kay Bates ordered LSU to pay the newspaper more than $13,000 for attorney’s fees in that case.

As part of the settlement in that case, the university agreed it must release applications for other positions, if a request is made.

Faircloth argued Thursday the 2001 settlement was irrelevant to the current case, but Clark disagreed.

“This court is of the opinion that the settlement document is binding on the parties,” she said. “The court finds the defendant’s actions breached that agreement. Their conduct was unlawful and contemptuous.”

LSU’s search for a new president ended in March with the selection of King Alexander, former president of California State University in Long Beach.

The Advocate, which has been seeking the records associated with the search since February, filed suit after the LSU board refused to release them.

The Times-Picayune joined the case a week later. The Reveille, LSU’s campus newspaper, filed a separate suit.

As part of the litigation, search committee chairman Blake Chatelain that there were approximately 35 semifinalists for the president’s post.

Newspaper attorney Lori Mince, who was allowed last week to review the documents LSU filed under seal but not disclose their contents, told the judge the sealed records do not contain information on 35 persons.