Ken Hare In Depth: Secrecy at ASU undermines public trust - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Ken Hare In Depth: Secrecy at ASU undermines public trust

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

When the new presidentof Alabama State University was interviewing for the job, she promised transparencyin university operations as necessary for ASU to maintain public trust. But ifrecent events involving an alleged gang rape on campus is any indication,President Gwendolyn Boyd has a monumental task facing her if she truly wants tochange the culture of secrecy at Alabama State.

WSFA-TV reporterJennifer Oravet reported Thursday on a criminal report by a female student atASU that while on campus, she was forced by five males to perform sexual acts.

[REPORT: "ASU confirms 5 suspects involved in alleged campus gang rape" 1/16]

The incident is allegedto have occurred on Nov. 1, but it took weeks of reporting and the involvementof the station's attorneys to persuade ASU officials to turn over an incidentreport about the case.

That incident report issupposed to be publicly available. In very limited situations, officials do nothave to reveal details that could hinder an investigation. But they should haveavailable for the public basic information that an alleged crime was reported.

However, when theWSFA reporter was contacted by the female student's family who were concernedthat they could not find out anything about whether an investigation was beingaggressively pursued, the station's reporters also could not find the incidentreport where such reports are normally available.

When asked in Decemberif such a report existed, the university's public relations spokesman said,"I've been told there is no record."

Even after thestation's attorneys became involved, it took a week for the university toconfirm the existence of the report.

After releasing thefirst page of the incident report, it was not until Thursday afternoon -- justhours before the station said it would air the report with or withoutuniversity comment -- that ASU released a statement from university PublicSafety Director Henry C. Davis Jr. that read in full: "On Nov. 1, 2013,the ASU Department of Public Safety received a report of an alleged sexualassault on the University campus. The Department of Public Safety conducted athorough investigation of the allegations and presented the results of itsinvestigation to the Montgomery County District Attorney on Dec. 19, 2013 forappropriate action."

Then, after the stationaired the initial report on the 6 p.m. newscast, Davis agreed to an interview.

In it he said suspectswere taken into custody, but no warrants were issued for arrests in the case.However, a copy of an incident report provided to the station by the allegedvictim's family indicated that arrests were made.

Davis said that thereport was kept secret not to interfere with the investigation. He also said:"We wanted to make sure in our investigation that we did everything wecould to give them an opportunity to have due process without being judgedwhether it was in the public or by the campus."

There is a lesson herefor all public officials: By keeping this information out of the public eye forso long, ASU officials only focused more attention on it when it finally cameout.

The denial ofpublic access to information about the rape allegation is reminiscent of theuniversity's reaction to recent attempts by forensic auditors and the newsmedia to gain information about allegations of financial misdeeds at ASU.

Attempts by Gov. RobertBentley to get information on questions raised by the former president of ASUabout financial dealings were stonewalled, according to the governor.

And when the universityhired an expensive outside attorney to handle inquiries from forensic auditorsand the governor's office about financial dealings, requests were dragged outand when documents were turned over, they often had virtually all of the keyinformation blacked out.

If ASU officialsstonewall the state's governor and the president of their own board of trustees-- Alabama governors serve ex officio in that capacity -- then it shouldsurprise no one that they also would stonewall the news media.

But it is especiallyupsetting that the victim's family turned to the news media to seek help ingaining access to information.

Davis said theuniversity did a thorough investigation. We here at WSFA do not know howprofessionally the ASU campus police pursued this investigation. We also aren'tin any position to judge guilt or innocence. That responsibility should restwith the courts.

But if ASU officialswant to persuade students, their families and the public that they are seriousabout pursuing allegations of crimes on campus and protecting students, thenthey cannot also make it appear that their first priority is protecting theuniversity's image.

President Boyd was notin office when the initial decisions were made on how to handle either theprobe of allegations of financial issues or the alleged rape case. But she willbe responsible for future decisions involving public access at ASU.

She may have said itbest when she said in her interview for the post that "the only way tomake people believe is with transparency.

"Present yourproblems, lay them out for people to see. And then tell people how you're goingto fix them. That's the only way to make people believe in you — show them whatyou're doing," she was quoted as saying.

That's well said. Nowit remains to be seen if she means it and, if so, whether she has the clout tomake it happen on campus.

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Ken Hare was alongtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who nowwrites a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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