LSU proposes compromise in lieu of complying with judge's order to release records

LOUISIANA — Louisiana State University officials have proposed a compromise after sheriff’s deputies showed up at their door on Tuesday, warrants in hand, demanding copies of public records the university has refused to release.

Monday, District Court Judge Janice Clark threatened to jail members of LSU’s board of supervisors if they did not comply with her order to release records from the school’s secret presidential search. Clark ruled in April that the records were public under Louisiana law following a lawsuit filed by The (Baton Rouge) Advocate and NOLA Media Group, which publishes the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

When the school still refused to release the records at a Tuesday hearing, she instructed East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies to confiscate the records themselves. LSU told the deputies that the records were in the hands of the Texas consulting firm that carried out the search.

Later that day, LSU proposed the compromise, offering to give the documents to the court, even though school officials had told the sheriff’s deputies they didn’t have them. If the court accepts their compromise, Clark would not pass the documents on to the newspapers until the university has had a chance to appeal, said Lori Mince, the newspapers’ attorney.

Mince said her clients have not yet agreed to the proposal.

“I think the (proposed) compromise is not as good as getting the records in my hands right now,” she said, but it would at least guarantee the records are in the hands of the court.

LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard said the university had no comment on the potential compromise. LSU system attorney Shelby McKenzie and a representative from the consulting firm, R. William Funk & Associates, also declined to comment.

Previously, LSU has denied that they had to release the records, saying they were in the possession of the private LSU Foundation, which LSU has said was responsible for hiring Funk’s firm and overseeing the search. F. King Alexander was selected out of 35 semifinalists, but LSU has said it didn’t have to release records of the others because they weren’t technically “applicants.”

A state appeals court and the Louisiana Supreme Court both denied the university’s requests to stay Clark’s order to release the records. But complying with the order would render the school’s attempt to appeal moot, Ballard said in a statement last month.

Clark hasn’t issued a final order on whether LSU must pay for the newspapers’ attorney fees, which means the trial is still technically ongoing. LSU can’t file for an appeal until that issue is resolved.

But in the meantime, unless a compromise is agreed to, the university is still violating a court order to release the records, Louisiana attorney Scott Sternberg said. Clark found the board in contempt last month, and imposed a $500 daily fine that now totals about $60,000.

Sternberg is not involved in the current case, but represented student newspaper editor Andrea Gallo in a separate suit for the same records. Gallo’s case, heard by a different judge, was decided in favor of the university. She did not appeal.

“In my mind, they’re going to wind up turning these records over anyway,” Sternberg said. “(The newspapers) are sending the message that the public’s business must be conducted in public.”

Gallo said the school might be resisting the records’ release because it signed a contract promising to keep the names confidential.

“I think by making such an effort not to release the records, the names on this list have become much more tantalizing,” she said. “It’s likely they’ll be scrutinized more than they would have been had this whole lawsuit not played out.”

Mince said one reason LSU’s proposed compromise might be appealing is that it’s unclear how Clark could seize the documents from Texas or how long that would take.

“I’ve never had a public records case where the sheriff had to be called in,” she said.

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.