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Patrick Springer, Published March 09 2013

Former higher ed attorney: ‘Egomaniacal chancellor’ was bent on violating laws

FARGO – The top lawyer for the North Dakota University System said he was forced out after repeated clashes with the chancellor over alleged open meetings violations.

The allegations by Pat Seaworth, the former general counsel for the State Board of Higher Education, are spelled out in a memo he sent to a state senator and that was presented last week to the board.

The senator, Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said Saturday that if the allegations are substantiated, Chancellor Hamid Shirvani should be fired. Earlier Grindberg had called for buying out Shirvani’s contract.

Shirvani has been under repeated fire for his actions, including these new allegations presented Thursday to the board.

Documents presented to the board by Sydney Hull, the student member, included a detailed email memo from Seaworth, laying out what Seaworth said is an ongoing pattern of violations of state open meetings laws.

On Saturday, the board called a special meeting for this Thursday to discuss allegations that it met illegally. Last week, board members planned to address the allegations in a May meeting to allow time for a thorough internal investigation.

The new general counsel for the university system is investigating the allegations and will provide a report at Thursday’s meeting, according to a news release issued Saturday.

But Grindberg said it would be inappropriate for the higher education board or university system staff to handle the investigation, which he said should be handled by the attorney general’s office.

“It’s the fox guarding the hen house,” he said, adding later: “You can’t have people that report to the chancellor doing an investigation.”

If Seaworth’s allegations are substantiated by an independent investigation, Grindberg said Saturday, Shirvani should be fired without a buyout.

On Friday, The Forum sent a request to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for an advisory opinion about whether the higher education board violated open records laws by holding dinner meetings, which Seaworth said happened regularly without adequate public notice.

Shirvani has declined to comment on the allegations and was not reachable through staff Saturday to comment on the latest allegations, detailed by Seaworth.

Duaine Espegard, president of the higher education board, declined Saturday to comment in detail on the allegations.

“When we get allegations, I then turn it over to counsel and counsel investigates,” Espegard said. “I’ve turned it over to counsel, and we’ll discuss it publicly on Thursday.”

Espegard repeatedly has said Shirvani has the support of the full board.

Seaworth, who said he resigned under pressure Nov. 5 after more than 20 years as a lawyer for the university system, on Feb. 21 wrote Grindberg an email describing what he said was an ongoing pattern of violations of open meetings laws by Shirvani and board members.

In early February, before Seaworth’s allegations became known, Grindberg had called for buying out Shirvani’s contract. Senators authorized money to do so, but only the board of higher education could remove the chancellor.

In his email to Grindberg and in an interview Saturday, Seaworth said Shirvani knowingly and repeatedly instructed staff to circumvent open meetings laws.

Only members of a public body or committee members working on a public body’s behalf – not the chancellor – can violate open meetings laws.

Seaworth gave the following account of his dealings with Shirvani and staff:

Starting in early July, shortly after coming on board as chancellor, Shirvani started hosting dinner meetings on the eve of regular board meetings.

Initially written invitations were sent to voting board members for a private dinner, but no public notices or agendas were sent out.

The board’s secretary expressed reservations about the invitations, telling Shirvani the meeting would be subject to open meetings requirements, according to Seaworth’s account.

Shirvani then went to another employee with instructions to send out the invitations.

A supervisor later became involved and showed Shirvani a legal memo summarizing open meetings requirements, pointing out a provision that any gathering of four of the eight voting members constitutes a quorum under the open meetings law.

After learning of Shirvani’s plans from concerned staff members, Seaworth reported Shirvani’s plans to the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office.

The next morning, following a meeting, Seaworth told Shirvani he wanted to speak to him about the dinner invitations and was told, “It’s been taken care of.”

Seaworth asked Shirvani what he meant, and Shirvani said he had instructed the secretary to post a meeting notice and agenda for the meeting – but the secretary said Shirvani told her not to send out notices, despite legal requirements, according to Seaworth’s account.

Seaworth then went to Shirvani’s office to tell him that notices had to go to news organizations and others on a distribution list as well as posting a notice with the secretary of state.

In response, Seaworth wrote, Shirvani became “extremely upset” and said something like, “I need someone who will help me do what I want to do, not create obstacles,” and started to usher Seaworth out of his office.

Later, Shirvani told the secretary not to consult Seaworth. It then became a standard practice to conduct private dinner meetings on the eve of regular board meetings.

Notices for regular meetings mentioned the dinners but did not include an agenda, giving the impression the gatherings were purely social, even though official business was discussed and a board consensus was reached for action the next day, Seaworth said he was told by people who attended the dinners.

Staff also clashed with Shirvani over open meetings requirements for a four-member executive committee, pointing out that when two members of the panel met and discussed official business, it constituted a quorum and was subject to open meetings requirements.

Shirvani told staff members that his plan to increase admission requirements was on a fast track and he wanted to limit opportunities by university presidents and others to “nitpick” the plan.

In late September, Seaworth told Shirvani he had concerns about procedures the chancellor sought to implement outside of public meetings.

“The chancellor ignored me,” Seaworth wrote. Seaworth amended the procedures to comply with requirements.

Seaworth’s differences with Shirvani came to a head later in the fall when Shirvani and Espegard met with him and told him he had to go, Seaworth said.

Seaworth said he was offered and accepted a severance package paying him 12 months of salary and benefits.

“… It is pretty clear that my actions during July-September and my intervention to prevent open meetings violations and attempts to prevent or at least slow down SBHE action delegating too much authority to and concentrating too much power in the hands of an egomaniacal chancellor precipitated the decision to force me out,” Seaworth wrote in his Feb. 21 email.

The Forum’s request for an advisory opinion on whether the higher education board conducted illegal meetings referred to dinner meetings March 6 and Jan. 16.

Notices of the dinner meetings, which were held the night before regular monthly meetings, were made without an agenda, and the dinner meetings lacked detailed minutes.

The minutes of the Jan. 16 meeting do not include any detail about what was discussed during the 2½-hour meeting, and simply noted that the board “reviewed higher education issues arising in the legislative session, including past and forthcoming hearings and opportunities to present testimony,” The Forum’s opinion request stated.

The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office said it will investigate The Forum’s request to determine whether open meetings laws were violated.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522