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EDITOR’S JOURNAL: Leaked reports, ballot votes & being Baptist

EDITOR’S NOTE: This report and commentary by Kelly Boggs, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, follows his May 3 Baptist Press report on the vote by Louisiana College trustees to exonerate the college president, Joe Aguillard, of charges of misappropriation of funds and of misleading trustees.

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — My first day in the office of the Baptist Message was Jan. 9, 2006. During the seven years I have been editor of the Message, I have never expressed my opinion on any issue in Louisiana Baptist life. However, with this column that will change.

The reason I have chosen not to broadcast my opinion on any issue is that I do not believe my opinion is any better than any other Louisiana Baptist. Just because I have the megaphone of the LBC’s official newsjournal does not make my opinion more important or more valid. Hence, on issues in Louisiana Baptist life, I have kept my opinions to myself.

In this column I am going to share some thoughts, perspectives and realities concerning the most recent controversy at Louisiana College. I might even toss in my opinion as well. I am addressing the situation at LC not because I think I have a definitive assessment, but because I think there are issues that do need to be addressed and highlighted.

One of the paramount realities that must be underscored is that the recent situation regarding whistleblower complaints alleging the LC president had misappropriated funds and misled trustees involved a personnel issue.

Due to the sensitive nature of personnel issues, as well as legal liabilities, all incorporated entities handle personnel matters privately and confidentially. If functioning responsibly, all incorporated entities — from Fortune 500 companies to non-profit organizations, including churches — approach personnel matters with caution, discretion and confidentiality.

Again, I reiterate: The nature of the most recent controversy at LC was a personnel issue. Whistleblower complaints were made and the college has a protocol for handling such issues. The resolution of the matter and the complaints should have been handled internally among the board and, for the sake of everyone involved, no one outside the board should have been privy to the procedure.

While there were rumors and rumors of rumors about what was taking place at LC over the past few months, the vast majority of Louisiana Baptists, including me, were unaware of the whistleblower complaints and the procedures taking place, which is as it should have been.

Everything changed when confidential, privileged information, meant only for LC trustees, was leaked to Alexandria’s daily newspaper, The Town Talk. On April 25, 26 and 27, the paper published a series of leaked documents that included a law firm’s report (a firm hired by the LC trustee chairman to help investigate the whistleblower complaints) and the interworkings of a special committee tasked with vetting the firm’s report.

The Baptist Message reported May 9 on the essence of the law firm’s findings in a report titled “LC board exonerates Aguillard.”

None of the information should ever have been given to anyone outside of the board of trustees, especially not a daily newspaper.

The law firm report twice emphasizes the private nature of the report. The very title of the report is: “Confidential Report of Investigation into Allegations Raised Against Dr. Joe Aguillard.” The next to the last paragraph of the report says, “This correspondence and report should also remain confidential within the Board of Trustees.”

Considering the law firm’s clear instruction that its report remain confidential and the fact that the situation involved a personnel issue, the leak is a very serious breach of trust on the part of, according to a source at The Town Talk, more than one board member.

I recently gained information that makes the leak even more egregious. It seems the trustees who secretly shared information with The Town Talk only gave the paper a portion of information available.

In a follow-up discussion with the LC president after the April 30 board meeting, I learned that a file containing exculpatory information existed and had been made available not only to all the trustees but also the law firm.

I must note here that when I referenced in print the one-inch-thick folder that I had been allowed to examine, it was suggested I had skimmed it or only gave it a cursory viewing. One individual even implied the folder did not exist and was nothing more than a figment of my imagination.

I spent quite a bit of time studying the contents of the folder in question. What I saw allowed me to understand the vote of those who decided to exonerate the president. As I have already written, the information in the folder, at the very least, cast doubts on the allegations brought against the LC president.

I now have in my possession all the information in the folder and 28 exhibits that challenge the whistleblower complaints leveled at LC President Joe Aguillard. Over the next few weeks I will be working with our attorney in compiling a report on the information in the folder.

Those who have sought to discredit the information in what has come to be known as “the folder” characterized it as some super-secret dossier Aguillard kept hidden to be used after the fact as a “get out of jail free” card. The facts indicate otherwise.

A question I had, and asked, is, “Did the trustees have access to the information in the folder?” More than one trustee told me they did have access to the information. It was also confirmed to me that the special committee had the information as well.

It seems quite clear that the trustees who leaked the law firm’s report to The Town Talk chose not to provide the newspaper with the information from the folder that, at the very least, casts some doubts on the report’s conclusions.

Another question on many people’s minds is, did the law firm have “the folder”? If so, why did it choose to ignore it?

Aguillard told The Town Talk there was “exculpatory evidence” that exonerated him of the charges made by the whistleblowers. When the paper asked one of the law firm partners about the president’s claim, it reported he said, “We looked at what was given to us. I don’t know what he’s [Aguillard] talking about.”

When Terry Hoychick, the attorney for Aguillard, was asked if the law firm had “the folder,” he confirmed that 28 exhibits –- all of which were present in the folder — were given to LC board chairman Gene Lee. Hoychick also said Lee indicated the exhibits were made available to the law firm.

Confused by the aforementioned? I was. The only thing I could conclude is that the law firm was supposed to have the 28 exhibits that were in the folder I examined.

The aforementioned became a bit clearer when LC received an email from the law firm the afternoon of May 9. The correspondence was in response to a question posed by the college as whether the firm did indeed have the 28 exhibits and how they might relate to an accrediting agency report.

The email in question was included in information received during an interview with Aguillard, whereby he provided documents in response to questions I posed to him. When asked about whether the law firm had the folder, the president handed me the e-mail.

The following is the second paragraph of the e-mail from the law firm:

“Nevertheless, we can confirm at this time that we received and reviewed 26 of the 28 documents (referred to by Dr. Aguillard and Mr. Hoychick as the ’28 exhibits’) during our investigation and prior to the completion of our report. We reserved the right to revise and supplement our response once we have completed our review of all files.”

The answer to the question, “Did the law firm have the 28 exhibits, which were included in the folder I examined?” is yes; the law firm does acknowledge having 26 of them. Why, then, if the law firm had the exhibits, did it choose to leave them out of its report? The answer is also in the e-mail sent to LC.

The law firm wrote in paragraph four of the e-mail: “Regardless none of the ’28 exhibits’ other than the correspondences between our firm and Mr. Hoychick documenting Dr. Aguillard’s refusal to cooperate with our investigations, had any bearing or significance on the findings of and conclusions stated in our investigative report and nothing in those documents changes our findings and conclusions at this time….”

The law firm went on in the email to indicate that it dismissed the exhibits in question as nothing more than “hearsay” and “self-serving denials.” The firm’s dismissal of those items seems to be based, in part, on the fact that Aguillard refused to submit to an interview as part of the firm’s investigation.

In the Baptist Message’s upcoming reports on the exhibits and contents in the “folder,” you can decide whether you agree with the law firm’s conclusions.

While it is clear Aguillard did not sit down with the firm for an interview, it is not true that he did not submit to an interview at all. He did submit to a lengthy interview with the LC chairman of the board, who is tasked with being the Chief Compliance Officer in regard to whistleblower complaints.

According to his attorney, Aguillard “met with the compliance officer [chairman Lee] for more than six hours on February 13, 2013….” The six hours of questions and answers were taped and it was the understanding of Aguillard and his attorney that the tape, as part of the 28 exhibits, was to be made available to the law firm.

When the lawyers demanded another interview with Aguillard just prior to the March 19 board meeting, his lawyer indicated he advised his client to decline to participate.

In a letter to LC, the law firm acknowledges having 26 of the 28 exhibits that, according to Aguillard, exonerated him of the whistleblower allegations. The law firm chose to discount the information, in part, because he did not submit to an interview during its investigation. However, Aguillard did cooperate with the LC board chairman in a six-hour session in which he responded to the whistleblower complaints.

With this information now known, you must decide: Were the exhibits sufficient enough to exonerate Aguillard? While Aguillard did submit to an interview with the law firm, did he cooperate with the LC chairman of the board? Did Aguillard’s six-hour Q&A session with the chairman meet with the protocols of LC whistleblower policy? These were questions with which the LC trustees had to wrestle.

On April 30, the LC trustees met, in part, to consider whistleblower complaints against Aguillard that charged him with misappropriation of funds as well as misleading and deceiving the board concerning a donor’s intentions about funding a building and an educational program.

The trustees had the law firm’s investigation as well as 28 exhibits that, at the very least, cast doubts on the law firm’s conclusions.

I do not know how the trustees addressed the whistleblower complaints during their meeting. I also do not know if anyone testified, because the meeting was conducted in executive session. And it should have been, because it was a personnel issue.

At some point late into the executive session, several trustees were walking in and out of the meeting room. Someone asked if the meeting was over. I heard a trustee say, “No, we are just taking a break while the ballots are being counted.”

I assumed that meant the trustees had voted via ballot on whether the president was guilty of the charges in the whistleblower complaints. While I had no idea what the outcome would be, I was pleased to hear they had voted by ballot.

For me, at least, when we Baptists vote — especially by ballot — it is an almost sacred exercise. It is all I have known in my professional life of more than 30 years. When considering a matter, hopefully we pray, we deliberate and then we vote. For my part, I have always accepted the outcome regardless of my position on a given matter.

When I heard the trustees were voting by ballot I also was pleased for another reason.

A narrative being circulated was that some of the board would be reluctant to vote to find Aguillard guilty if they had to vote by voice or by raised hand. The word was some board members were intimidating others.

If that were true, then a ballot vote, which is deemed secret, would remove the intimidation factor and every trustee could vote his or her conscience based on all the evidence each had examined. When the ballots were counted, a majority of trustees voted to exonerate the president.

Much has been made, by some, of the closeness of the vote. Because the vote was held in executive session, no one but the trustees should have knowledge of the count. I have not reported on a total for two reasons. One, it was in executive session and, two, I was told four different totals, and those sharing the information were not trustees.

Let me sum up and share my opinions. First, it is a fact some trustees leaked confidential information. Not only did they leak material intended only for the board, but they leaked only partial information, the most damaging to the president.

Additionally, trustees have shared information that was introduced in executive session. This is a violation of trust.

Next, because “the folder” containing exhibits questioning the law firm’s conclusions was not leaked, it led some to conclude the folder either did not exist or was specious.

The law firm cited its reasons for ignoring the folder, and that is its prerogative. However, the trustees who leaked only the law firm’s report and not “the folder” made it appear the only information available to trustees was the law firm investigation.

It is hard to conclude the motive of leaking only partial information other than it was not only to smear Aguillard, but also to attempt to paint some of the board into a corner by making it appear only a sycophant would vote to exonerate the president.

The trustees who engaged in this selective leaking have violated their trust and should, at the very least, repent. No matter what anyone might think of the president and his competency, resorting to an “ends justifies the means” agenda is egregious.

Additionally, while the president did not cooperate with the law firm’s investigation by being interviewed by the firm — at the advice of his attorney — he did cooperate with the LC trustee chairman.

Whether or not you find the aforementioned satisfactory is up to you. The board of trustees was aware of the six-hour Q&A the president had with their chairman and, it seems, a majority were satisfied.

Finally, the trustees voted by ballot on whether they believed the president was guilty of the whistleblower charges. I cannot speak for all my Baptist brothers and sisters, but for me, whenever I am involved with a decision that is rendered via a vote — especially a ballot — I consider it almost sacred.

While I have not always liked or agreed with how a ballot vote has turned out, I have always respected it and accepted it. It is just part of my Baptist DNA.

So in the end, whether or not you agree with the outcome of the recent trustee vote at LC, it was done by giving every trustee the opportunity to vote his or her conscience. As a Baptist, that is a process I must respect.
Kelly Boggs is editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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