Ken Hare In Depth: Secrecy at ASU undermines public trust - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Ken Hare In Depth: Secrecy at ASU undermines public trust

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

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

WSFA-TV reporter Jennifer Oravet reported Thursday on a criminal report by a female student at ASU 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 alleged to have occurred on Nov. 1, but it took weeks of reporting and the involvement of the station's attorneys to persuade ASU officials to turn over an incident report about the case.

That incident report is supposed to be publicly available. In very limited situations, officials do not have to reveal details that could hinder an investigation. But they should have available for the public basic information that an alleged crime was reported.

However, when the WSFA reporter was contacted by the female student's family who were concerned that they could not find out anything about whether an investigation was being aggressively pursued, the station's reporters also could not find the incident report where such reports are normally available.

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

Even after the station's attorneys became involved, it took a week for the university to confirm the existence of the report.

After releasing the first page of the incident report, it was not until Thursday afternoon -- just hours before the station said it would air the report with or without university comment -- that ASU released a statement from university Public Safety 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 sexual assault on the University campus. The Department of Public Safety conducted a thorough investigation of the allegations and presented the results of its investigation to the Montgomery County District Attorney on Dec. 19, 2013 for appropriate action."

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

In it he said suspects were 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 alleged victim's family indicated that arrests were made.

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

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

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

Attempts by Gov. Robert Bentley to get information on questions raised by the former president of ASU about financial dealings were stonewalled, according to the governor.

And when the university hired an expensive outside attorney to handle inquiries from forensic auditors and the governor's office about financial dealings, requests were dragged out and when documents were turned over, they often had virtually all of the key information blacked out.

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

But it is especially upsetting that the victim's family turned to the news media to seek help in gaining access to information.

Davis said the university did a thorough investigation. We here at WSFA do not know how professionally the ASU campus police pursued this investigation. We also aren't in any position to judge guilt or innocence. That responsibility should rest with the courts.

But if ASU officials want to persuade students, their families and the public that they are serious about pursuing allegations of crimes on campus and protecting students, then they cannot also make it appear that their first priority is protecting the university's image.

President Boyd was not in office when the initial decisions were made on how to handle either the probe of allegations of financial issues or the alleged rape case. But she will be responsible for future decisions involving public access at ASU.

She may have said it best when she said in her interview for the post that "the only way to make people believe is with transparency.

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

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

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

Copyright 2014 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.

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