In a Jan. 11 letter sent to Ohio University’s legal office, the legal counsel for the Ohio Office of the Inspector General opened by stating the following:
“This correspondence describes the methodology we intend on using to collect and review Ohio University-maintained email boxes (files) in the investigation involving the purchase of 31 Coventry Lane, aka Sycamore Hills.”
With this opening statement, OIG chief legal counsel James T. Manken confirmed two important facts: 1) That OU is indeed being investigated by the Inspector General’s office, which is tasked with investigating allegations of wrongdoing on the part of state agencies, and 2) that OU is being investigated for a move it almost made last year to purchase the home of a donor to become a residence for OU President Roderick McDavis.
As a rule, the OIG’s office cannot confirm or deny that it’s investigating any state agency, but the letter from Manken, provided to The NEWS by OU through a request for all email correspondence between the OIG’s office and OU, seems to do just that.
Further emails provided to The NEWS also show that the OIG’s office set up in-person interviews with at least eight OU employees, with Deputy Inspector General Rebekeh Wolcott stating in an email that the interviews are meant to allow the employees to “explain their daily processes and documentation” entered into the university’s computer systems.
According to Manken’s letter, the OIG’s office is also seeking the entirety of OU’s email records for 13 OU officials, including McDavis, OU Athletics Director Jim Schaus and David Brightbill, former chair of the university Board of Trustees.
The Inspector General’s office has requested records from the university four times since April 2015, when the OIG appeared to open an investigation into the university. However, the first three requests asked the university’s legal office to locate and review records and send the relevant ones to the OIG’s office; Manken’s letter lays out a different process, with the state agency taking the lead in combing through email files without the university being able to review them first.
All of the requests so far show that the Inspector General’s office is investigating issues relating to the university signing a lease-purchase agreement for 31 Coventry Lane last March, which is a home McDavis and his wife currently live in, and which the university is leasing from John Wharton, a previous OU Athletics donor and local rental property owner. The university announced last April that it decided not to exercise a $1.15 million purchase option that was included on the lease it signed with Wharton, with OU’s vice president for finance stating the university wished to avoid “any appearance of impropriety.”
That decision came after an OU donor record came to light indicating that Wharton told Schaus he would donate almost $200,000 to university athletics initiatives, pledges which the donor record state were connected to the possible deal to buy his house.
The university’s VP for Finance, Stephen Golding, said during the April 13 conference call announcing the decision not to buy 31 Coventry Lane that no OU employees who negotiated the lease were aware of Wharton’s donor pledges (which he never acted on) until after the lease was signed.
John Biancamano, OU’s legal counsel, said he did not think any illegal action had happened on the part of OU or university officials.
IN THE JANUARY letter to OU, Inspector General counsel Manken explained that the university will need to help the state agency collect the email files of OU administrators and transport those files to Columbus for analysis.
Manken explained that the OIG office’s IT administrator will use “office forensic tools” to identify files matching the office’s “search criteria.”
Then, those files will be given to Joshua Beasley, investigative attorney for the OIG, to determine if the files contain “privileged content, i.e. attorney-client privilege.” Beasley would then separate the privileged content (meaning it’s protected by law from being released to the public or used in a legal proceeding), and those files would not be subject to review by the OIG’s investigative team, Manken wrote.
“Files that are identified, but not subject to a privilege, will be provided to the deputy inspector general for review,” Manken wrote.
Biancamano appeared to question that process, at least according to a Feb. 17 email to Manken with the subject “Taint Team.” In the email, Biancamano shares a link to case law from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and says the information is “for tomorrow,” referring to a conference call the OIG’s office setup with Biancamano on Feb. 18.
The case deals with the issue of the federal government seeking to use a “taint team” to review records, which is a group of government prosecutors or agents who are tasked with reviewing records relating to a subpoena or investigation, removing privileged documents, and then providing those documents (minus the privileged info) to the government officials who are in charge of the investigation.
The case found that the government was not allowed to use a taint team to review records relating to a convoluted lawsuit between a private company and its former owner, because there was no “check” on the government’s ability to review the documents unfettered without giving the company a chance to review the government’s decisions on what is privileged material and what isn’t.
Manken seems to address that issue in his Jan. 11 letter, however.
“…Any files that are relied on in the investigation will be provided to you prior to the release of our report of investigation to afford you the opportunity to address whether or not you think any of the emails would not be subject to release as public records,” Manken wrote.
The OIG's office is seeking the complete email records of the following OU officials:
- Roderick McDavis, OU's president.
- Stephen Golding, OU's vice president for finance and administration.
- Donna Goss, OU's director of real estate management at the time when OU signed the lease for 31 Coventry Lane. She's since left that job.
- Bryan Benchoff, the OU Foundation's president and VP for the university's advancement office.
- Ryan White, senior associate athletic director and senior director for development. Schaus told White about Wharton's pledge to donate to the university in connection with the housing deal, and filed a donor-contact report about the encounter 24 days after it occurred.
- Jim Schaus, director of OU's athletics department.
- Jennifer Kirksey, the chief of staff for OU's president's office.
- Candice Casto, chief finance and investment officer for the OU Foundation's operations.
- David Brightbill, the OU Board of Trustees chair at the time of the signing of the lease.
- Deborah McDavis, OU's first lady.
- David Averion, administrative legal assistant and manager of real estate operations.
- Kelli Tackett, McDavis' assistant.
- Kevin Markielowski, business analyst with OU's office of real estate management.
The records released by OU last week can be found here.