University of Alabama System Office employees were shocked to receive an email Friday afternoon requiring them to sign a confidentiality agreement by no later than Oct. 8, according to UA sources.
“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.
The agreement itself offers a sweeping interpretation of confidentiality that seemingly could apply to almost any conversation a System Office employee might have with a non-employee about work.
“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.
As a condition of employment or continued employment with UAS, the agreement requires employees to agree they will not disclose confidential information information to anyone outside UAS, copy or retrieve documents and files they are not authorized to handle, or even discuss work matters with family and friends that could fall under the “confidential information” umbrella.
The agreement forces System Office employees to acknowledge that if they violate the agreement, they could “be subject to discipline up to and including termination of my employment, and other available legal or equitable remedies.”
UA System Office employees must also agree to adhere to the agreement even once they are no longer employed there.
“I understand that this Confidentiality Agreement, and my duties and responsibilities under this agreement, are not only binding during my employment with UAS but will continue after my employment with UAS ends,” the agreement reads.
Sources who spoke with Lagniappe on the condition of anonymity believe the agreement is a further attempt by UA Chancellor Finis St. John IV to shut down the flow of information to Lagniappe about the inner workings of the System Office. Lagniappe has published a series of articles over the past five months chronicling spending irregularities, morale issues and the lack of an actual selection process when St. John was named chancellor.
St. John’s System Office has consistently ignored questions and requests for public records over the course of Lagniappe’s investigation, so the use of anonymous sources has been key to discovering and reporting on activities there. This agreement would seemingly make it a fireable offense for an employee to inform anyone outside the System Office of spending practices that might not be in the best interest of the System as a whole.
For example, these sources were directly responsible for informing this newspaper about the System Office’s payments to political columnist Steve Flowers, who was being paid $96,000 a year, along with benefits and retirement, even though he produced no provable work for the System Office over the last two years of his employment. Flowers abruptly resigned after this circumstance was brought to light.
Even providing the new confidentiality agreement to this newspaper would appear to be a violation of its rules.
One source described the confidentiality agreement as “paranoid” and an extension of an edict recently issued by St. John that locked some employees out of Sid McDonald Hall and severely restricted access to the building, which houses System Office staff, by non-employees.
Sources said a confidentiality agreement has never been required before. But the use of such non-disclosure agreements has become common in recent years when highly paid administrators were forced out and continued receiving payroll for months or years after leaving their positions.
The State Ethics Commission’s rules for public employees as it relates to confidential information is not nearly as broad as those enacted by the System Office, and primarily address employees using such information for personal gain.
The Ethics Commissions “Guidelines for Public Employees and Officials” says cautions, “Don’t … use or disclose confidential information gained in the course of or by reason of your position in any way that could result in financial gain, other than your regular salary, for yourself, a member of your family, or any other person or business. Section 36-25-8.”
Lagniappe attempted to contact Harrison via phone for this story, but was unsuccessful. Emailed questions to the System Office and St. John were not answered.
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