Court orders Ky. university foundation to release donor names

KENTUCKY –– A Kentucky judge ruled last weekthat the University of Louisville Foundation must disclose the names of all but 62 of its45,000 previously unidentified donors.The Sept. 18 decision is a win forThe Louisville Courier-Journal, which sought access to the names of thefund-raising foundation’s donors under the commonwealth’s open-recordslaws.Judge Steve Mershon ruled that the 62 donors who had previouslyrequested anonymity had a right to privacy that outweighed the public’s right toknow.The foundation’s lawyer, Michael D. Risling, said the organizationwill appeal the decision, which, according to him and foundation officials,could jeopardize the foundation’s ability to raise funds for the school. Thefoundation raises about $450 million a year for the university and held $543million in assets as of June 2000, according to court documents.”Anycharity or nonprofit organization will tell you that it’s very important to keepdonor identities private in fund-raising endeavors,” Risling said. “Donorswill often opt not to give if their names are disclosed.”JonFleischaker, the attorney for The Courier-Journal, said he is generallyhappy with the court’s decision, but will still appeal the part of the rulingthat allows the foundation to withhold the remaining 62 names.”Thefoundation’s claims are bogus,” Fleischaker said. “They have absolutely noproof that disclosing those names will create fund-raising problems.”Thecase stems from The Courier-Journal’s 2001 lawsuit against thefoundation for allegedly violating the Kentucky Open Records Act. The newspapersued when the foundation refused to disclose records of donations to theuniversity’s McConnell Center for Political Leadership, which was established in1991 by the state’s senior U.S. senator, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The centertrains political leaders and brings in high-profile political speakers forseminars and events on campus.Keith Runyon, the Courier-Journalopinion editor who originally sought the donor’s names, said McConnell raisedmoney for the center through the foundation –– possibly to keepdonor identities confidential –– rather than raising the money onhis own, which would make the donor information public. “McConnellfought the disclosure of those 62 names aggressively, so he must have aninterest in keeping them confidential,” Runyon said. “We contended that when aU.S. senator raises money for a public institution, the names of the donorsshould be public information.”McConnell refused to comment on theallegations, but Judge Mershon seemed to disagree with Runyon’ssuspicions.Mershon viewed the list of 62 donors and stated, “thereappears to be nothing unusual, cynical, or untoward concerning any of thedonations by those requesting anonymity.”In addition to donations to theMcConnell Center, Runyon requested information on corporate and private donorswho do business with the university to see if they had made donations in secret.Runyon was involved in a 1977 lawsuit against the same foundation forholding public meetings in private.Last week’s decision was the secondof two rulings since The Courier-Journal’s lawsuit began, whichhave both increased access to the foundation’s records. The court ruled in July2002 that the foundation was a public entity and had to comply with thecommonwealth’s open-records laws. The ruling stated that the foundation wasrequired to disclose the identities of corporate donors, private foundations,and individual donors previously identified by the foundation. In the past, thefoundation released some donor identities to the press. The recent ruling addedthe names of the 45,000 unidentified donors to the list to bereleased.The foundation appealed the court’s first decision as well,which is currently under review. None of the records at issue in the lawsuitwill be disclosed until a final judicial decision is made.Risling saidthe foundation is hopeful it can prove the foundation is a private entity at theappellate level. If the foundation can prove it is private, as the Iowa StateUniversity Foundation recently did under that state’s open-records law in acourt decision Sept. 11, it would not have to release the names of anydonors.The case comes at a time when controversy over universityfoundations is becoming increasingly heated around the country. Similarlawsuits in other states have gone all the way to state supreme courts, whereopinions have fallen on both sides of the issue. In this case, Mershonwrote that the University of Louisville Foundation is subject to the sameopen-records laws as any public entity.”The court agrees with TheCourier-Journal that there appears to be nothing of record to show thatthese donations were made with the understanding that they were to a privatecorporation, independent of the University of Louisville,” Mershon wrote. “While the Foundation is incorporated separately from the University ofLouisville, the Foundation is essentially the fundraising instrumentality forthe university.”Mershon concluded, however, that the 62 individualdonors who want their identities confidential have a right to privacy–– a right that, according to Mershon, outweighs the public’s rightto know. Fleischaker is concerned this concession to the foundationwill allow corporations to donate money through private individuals. “All a corporation has to do is let their president or CEO make aprivate donation and claim anonymity,” Fleischaker said.As the newdecision heads to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, a recent incident isintensifying the imbroglio. Last month, the University of Louisville’sformer president, John W. Shoemaker, resigned from his presidency at theUniversity of Tennessee, because of allegations of misspending university money.Shoemaker had similar accusations against him at the University of Louisville,but because the foundation’s records will be closed while the case is pending,the allegations cannot be confirmed”That has become the main issuehere,” Fleischaker said. “The public has a right to know if university money isbeingmisspent.”

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