Just a few hours after a story broke about the University of Alabama System Office requiring its employees to sign a sweeping new confidentiality agreement last Friday, the System’s top lawyer sent out an email threatening employees with investigation and imploring them to help identify the leak.
At roughly 9 p.m. last Friday, System General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor Sid Trant emailed staff in Sid McDonald Hall, which houses the System Office, warning them the administration would “thoroughly investigate” what he described as “a breach of confidentiality.” Earlier that day, Lagniappe published a story about Chancellor Finis St. John’s office suddenly ordering staff to sign a confidentiality agreement by Oct. 8 as a condition of continued employment.
“Please follow the ‘Review Document’ link above to review and acknowledge the UAS Employee Confidentiality Agreement. All employees must acknowledge the form no later than Friday, October 8, 2021. Employees will receive a copy via email and a copy will be placed in HR personnel files,” UA System Office HR Manager Jessica Harrison wrote in an email sent to employees Oct. 1.
The agreement, which vastly expands what information is defined as confidential in the System Office Employee Handbook, was included in Harrison’s email. A copy of the email was provided to Lagniappe.
The message sent via Trant’s email later that Friday had “Confidentiality breach” written in the subject line and was addressed to Sid McDonald Staff.
“This is to advise you that we have been made aware of these inappropriate sharing of business information — a breach of confidentiality — by someone within SMH,” Trant wrote. “We will thoroughly investigate this matter. Please let me know if you have any information that might bear on this issue.”
Questions regarding who specifically would be under investigation and what the investigation would entail were not answered by Trant and the System Office prior to publication of this story. The System Office has typically not acknowledged questions asked by Lagniappe.
On Wednesday morning, though, Director of System Communications Lynn Lowe Cole sent a message to System Office employees offering advice on dealing with any media inquiries.
“I hope you are all well. I have received questions from several UA System Office employees regarding our media process. You should not feel obliged to respond to media inquiries, and you are always welcome to refer reporters to me via email: [email protected] If a reporter calls you, you may transfer them to my direct line (8-5938),” Cole wrote. “Please let me know if you are contacted so I can stay aware of all media matters. Do not hesitate to give me a call with any questions.”
It should be noted that while Cole writes that employees “should not feel obliged to respond” to reporters, the new confidentiality agreement would likely make telling a reporter anything a fireable offense.
“I understand that as part of my employment in the University of Alabama System Office (“UAS”), I will have access to non-public information, observations, documents, messages, or data concerning or relating to the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama (“Board”) and its trustees, operating divisions, affiliates, activities, offices, officials, students, patients, donors, licensees, employees and contractors (“confidential information”). Without limitation, “confidential information” includes information or data concerning: operations; trade secrets; audit matters; compliance matters; ongoing, threatened or potential litigation; intercollegiate athletics; internal or external communications; financial plans, budgets, reports or operations; employee matters; contracts, grants and other agreements; negotiations; intellectual property (patents, trademarks, copyrights, etc.); research; academic matters; notes, plans and any other information that is generally not available to the public or to people outside UAS. Confidential information may exist in a variety of formats — hard copy, electronic, oral information, or other forms, and includes information obtained when I was not the intended recipient,” the agreement reads.
Cole did not respond when asked if her email was in direct response to inquiries from any other media outlet.
Since Lagniappe first began investigating spending and personnel issues at the UA System Office in April, administrators appear to have worked to stifle the flow of information coming from within Sid McDonald Hall. For example, when Lagniappe began investigating why political columnist Steve Flowers was earning $96,000 a year as a System employee when he did not appear to actually produce any work or keep office hours, confidential sources said office employees were told by administrators to say Flowers was not in his office if a reporter called and asked for him. A receptionist did, in fact, say Flowers wasn’t in his office when a reporter asked for him. The System later admitted Flowers did not ever have an office in Sid McDonald Hall.
Since April, the System Office has refused to answer a multitude of questions and has also ignored several requests for documents made under the Alabama Open Records Act. For example, Lagniappe has waited unsuccessfully for several months now for the System Office to divulge how many finalists there were in the 2019 search that ended with St. John named full-time chancellor. Multiple sources have said no other candidates were interviewed, but the System as well as members of the Board of Trustees have refused to answer questions about the search.
Lagniappe has also requested information regarding expenditures related to System-operated buildings, but those also have been ignored.
In July, Trant threatened to begin charging Lagniappe for answering questions, although the System had generally disregarded answering anything of substance and few requests would have required research.
“In addition, as I stated in a previous Open Records response, we have attempted to provide responses to your numerous Open Records requests without charge, but we reserve the right to charge you for our time, research and preparation of responses to your frequent, time-consuming requests, but we will certainly provide you with a cost estimate before proceeding,” Trant wrote.
Trant, however, never provided the proffered cost estimate when it was requested by the reporter.
Current and former System employees have complained about severe morale issues within not only their office, but across all three University of Alabama campuses, as well as a culture of fear perpetuated by St. John and his top lieutenants. When St. John barred some System employees from McDonald Hall last month, sources described the move as a “paranoid” attempt to stop further information leaks.
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