Legislators aim to shield foundations from public scrutiny with Georgia law

GEORGIA — A bill that allows public universities to withholddocuments and records from the public to protect donor confidentiality waspassed in the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate in April, buckinga nationwide trend of openness.

Public colleges and universities, Republicanlegislators in favor of the bill argued, are at a disadvantage becausefoundations at private universities are not required to release informationabout their donors. Recently, some state supreme courts have ruled thatfoundations at public universities are subject to open-records laws, whichrequires the release of documents for public knowledge.

“Foundationsare major bodies that are part of institutions, but these bodies have hugeramifications on the policies behind the universities,” said HollyManheimer, director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “Sothey’re really powerful institutions that have a lot of decision-makingpower and can make an impact.”

Thomas Jackson, associate vice presidentfor public affairs at the University of Georgia, supports the bill because hethinks donor privacy is essential for the university to run as well as it can.

The University of Georgia has three employees who work solely for thefoundation and about 20 other employees who work for the university and thefoundation. Salaries for all employees who work for both the university and thefoundation are paid with public money; two of the three employees who worksolely for the foundation are paid with public money. The executive director ofthe foundation is the only employee whose salary is paid with foundation money,Jackson said.

“There’s a definite chilling effect amongdonors,” Jackson said. “They’re concerned that under a statewith really open public records laws, which Georgia is, that their privatefinancial records would be open to public scrutiny, such as wills, financialtransactions, trust agreements. And that’s what this bill is seeking toprotect.”

Jackson said that every year the university prints an honorroll of donors, including the amount each donor gave, unless donors specificallyrequest that their names remain anonymous.

“This bill will help set atease the minds of the donors that their private business will become publicrecord simply because they made a donation to a state university,” Jacksonsaid. “There’s no intention to withhold their names. It’s nota secret who is giving, it’s their personal financial records that aretrying to be protected.”

Manheimer said this bill could havedevastating effects on the future of Georgia’s openness.

“Publicoversight of foundations such as these, including the information that this billwould ultimately conceal, has been critical in exposing prior issues of publicconcern,” she said.

Manheimer said proponents of the bill testified atthe legislative hearing that they feared information about anonymous donorswould be disclosed. However, she said, proponents were not able to cite anyinstance where such exposure took place.

Republican Gov. Sonny Perduesupports the bill, and is likely to sign it into law in late April or early May,Manheimer said.