U of I demands $2,400 to review — and perhaps release — Phoenix public records

(UPDATED, 5:36 p.m. Thursday, with a correction regarding the name change of a Boise State University public record.)

It’s a straightforward request.

Idaho Education News wants emails, texts and other public records containing the words “Project Neptune:” the code phrase for the University of Idaho’s proposed University of Phoenix purchase.

But straightforward does not mean inexpensive. The U of I wants to charge EdNews nearly $2,400 before it will release the “Project Neptune” paper trail.

“The university will not expend the time and resources necessary to identify, gather, and review responsive records at the risk of taxpayer funds; consequently, you will be required to deliver advance payment in certified funds in the amount of $2,370.95, before the university commences this process,” Karl Klein, a senior associate general counsel for the U of I, said in an email to Idaho EdNews Friday.

Idaho’s law reads as follows: “There is a presumption that all public records in Idaho are open at all reasonable times for inspection.” The law requires agencies to cover up to two hours of staff time to process records requests. Agencies can bill to cover additional costs — but they are not required to do so.

The U of I, Idaho’s land-grant institution, is one of the largest public agencies in the state. Its 2023-24 budget of $189.6 million comes largely from state tax dollars and student tuition and fees.

What we know about ‘Project Neptune’

First off, it doesn’t look like the U of I coined “Project Neptune.”

Phoenix — a massive for-profit online school serving some 85,000 students — used “Neptune” as a code name as it quietly explored a possible sale to the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas Times reported in February.

In February, the U of I began looking at a Phoenix purchase — and soon latched onto the phrase preferred by the publicity-averse private university.

U of I legal counsel Kent Nelson and vice president of finance and administration Brian Foisy use the phrase in early March emails, obtained by EdNews through a previous public records request. So does State Board member Bill Gilbert. And so do officials from Tyton Partners, the New York-based financial advisers Phoenix hired to work on a sale.

Those emails prompted a followup public records request.

EdNews’ records request

On Nov. 15, EdNews requested “any emails, text messages or internal or external documents containing the phrase ‘Project Neptune,’” from Jan. 1 through June 30. The request focused on the U of I’s upper management: President C. Scott Green’s office; Provost Torrey Lawrence’s office; Nelson’s office of general counsel; and Foisy’s division of finance and administration. (EdNews limited a previous records request to these four offices, at the U of I’s suggestion, in order to focus the scope of that previous request. The U of I fulfilled this previous request free of charge.)

On Friday — the U of I’s deadline to respond to the Nov. 15 request — the university delivered only an email and an invoice.

In his email, Klein did say the university had identified at least 4,000 documents that might fall within EdNews’ request, including 2,073 emails. He said the U of I would first need to review each email before then reviewing other documents, such as attachments to the emails.

The U of I says attorneys would need to spend 35 hours reviewing these documents — at labor costs of $64.29 an hour — before releasing the records. The lawyers’ fees account for the bulk of the U of I’s bill.

And Klein said “many, if not most” of the records would be exempt from release anyway — falling under attorney-client privilege and/or trade secrets and proprietary information. Since spring, most of the State Board and U of I discussions with Phoenix have remained cloaked in secrecy, because Phoenix insisted that the public entities enter into non-disclosure agreements. These agreements remain intact.

Public records issues at Boise State

The U of I’s records response comes two days after BoiseDev broke an explosive story about public records issues at Boise State University.

Don Day’s Nov. 29 article outlined a series of allegations Boise State associate vice president Nicole Nimmons leveled in a court deposition. Nimmons said the university renamed a Google Drive document titled “Big City Coffee,” the name of a coffee shop suing Boise State. The document was renamed “B C C,” which means it wouldn’t turn up in a public records search for “Big City Coffee.” (According to Day’s report, Nimmons said the change was made by Lauren Griswold, Boise State’s chief communications and marketing officer. Griswold is a member of Boise State President Marlene Tromp’s executive team, and at $264,160 per year, is one of the university’s highest-paid employees.)

Nimmons also said university officials were instructed to keep some politically sensitive topics out of public records, Day reported.

Day’s article also outlined several public records disputes between BoiseDev and Boise State. He cited EdNews’ records disputes with Boise State — including the university’s short-lived attempt to bill EdNews more than $700 for emails mentioning controversial political science professor Scott Yenor.

In an EdNews interview Monday, Tromp answered questions about the BoiseDev report — and the university’s approach to public records requests.

“There’s not an effort to direct people to be surreptitious,” Tromp said during the taping of an EdNews podcast interview.

Tromp declined to talk in detail about the Big City Coffee records, citing the shop’s ongoing lawsuit against Boise State. She didn’t directly say whether she has spoken to her staff about BoiseDev’s report, but says she has talked to staff “on many occasions” about how the university responds to records requests.

Tromp noted that she assigned a staff member to field records requests in a consistent and timely manner. “It (isn’t) just some add on to somebody’s job.”

But Tromp also said she expects employees to be careful about what they put in an email.

“To tell people to be judicious. I think, is totally appropriate,” she said.

Coming Friday: In the next Kevin Richert Podcast, Tromp and Boise State senior officials discuss an ambitious capital campaign, enrollment, Statehouse politics and public records.

Further reading: Do you have questions about the proposed Phoenix purchase? Get answers here.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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