Legal

Public Records Appear to Have Been Altered by Former General Counsel, U. of Florida Audit Finds

August 11, 2017

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Internal auditors at the U. of Florida have identified multiple irregularities in how records requests appear to have been handled under the university’s former general counsel, Jamie Keith.

Internal auditors found evidence that the University of Florida’s former general counsel, Jamie Keith, may have illegally altered or destroyed public records, according to an audit released on Friday.

On most issues, auditors stopped short of issuing formal findings related to Ms. Keith, who resigned in May. The auditors wrote that "no further interviews" were performed after Ms. Keith’s May 31 departure, which prevented auditors from finishing much of their investigation. A university spokeswoman said that it is "standard operating procedure" for university auditors to suspend an investigation following an employee’s resignation.

Nevertheless, the report identified multiple irregularities in how records requests appeared to have been handled by the university. Lawyers in the general counsel’s office told the auditors that Ms. Keith had taken the unusual step of processing certain records requests herself — even though the office has a designated lawyer who is responsible for handling those requests.

The records requests that employees said Ms. Keith took control of involved her personally; in at least some cases, the requests sought documents that could reflect poorly upon her. Employees told auditors that Ms. Keith held a meeting this year where she explained her hands-on approach with the requests, telling her staff that "it wasn’t a reflection on them" and that she was just "trying to not burden the office" by seeking the records herself.

The requests "were all related to me anyway," employees quoted Ms. Keith as saying.

Auditors identified three instances where public records "appeared to be altered, destroyed, or omitted from public records requests" by Ms. Keith. The first of those instances involved anonymous employee surveys from lawyers and others in Ms. Keith’s office, most of which were critical of their boss’s job performance. When the survey responses were released to the public, two of the responses were altered to make them less critical, auditors wrote, and three of the survey responses were never released at all.

In another case, Ms. Keith failed to turn over an email exchange between her and J. Bernard Machen, a former president of the university. In a third case, an assessment written by an outside human-resources consultant, who was hired to coach Ms. Keith, was conspicuously left out of records released to the public.

Expanded Public-Records Training

Auditors wrote that Ms. Keith told them that she had forgotten to provide the email with Mr. Machen and that she was unaware the consultant’s assessment existed. Ms. Keith also denied being involved in gathering the responses to records requests, auditors wrote.

"I purposely did not gather any of the public records requests," auditors quoted her as saying, because she "didn’t want to be blamed for anything missing."

In a statement provided to The Chronicle, Ms. Keith stressed the fact that auditors did not reach a conclusion about most aspects of their investigation.

"After almost 5 months of work, University of Florida’s Office of Internal Audit did not reach a conclusion on 3 of the 4 allegations it reviewed, including all of the allegations relating to survey responses, and other public records, meaning Audit did not find the facts necessary to conclude misconduct," she wrote.

In releasing the audit, Janine Sikes, the university’s assistant vice president for public affairs, said in an email that the report "principally addresses the actions of a single former employee and we have no further comment about it."

She went on to note that, "to further enhance our processes," the university’s president has called for expanding public-records training and enacting guidance to help manage complaints related to workplace or academic environments.

Most of the records requests related to Ms. Keith have come from one source: Huntley Johnson, a Gainesville lawyer who has battled the university over its handling of sexual-assault investigations and other issues. At one point, Mr. Johnson asked the university to pay nearly $400,000 in legal fees for a football player who was accused of assault and ultimately cleared. When the university refused, Mr. Johnson stepped up his criticism of Ms. Keith and began filing a barrage of records requests.

The university responded by hiring an outside law firm to help evaluate the situation — a decision that auditors examined. Ms. Keith told auditors that Mr. Johnson had verbally threatened her that he was going to "look into every financial transaction," and she believed she might have an obligation to report him to the Florida Bar. That issue was researched by the outside law firm.

Auditors found that "Ms. Keith’s decision to research and potentially report Mr. Johnson should have been an individual one and should not have been funded with university money." In her statement to The Chronicle, Ms. Keith said that the question of whether to file a bar complaint arose during her performance of university job duties. She wrote that the auditors’ opinion on this issue "makes no sense and is wrong."

Michael Vasquez is a senior investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MrMikeVasquez, or email him at michael.vasquez@chronicle.com.