Friday, December 14, 2007

To Err is Human, To Keep it Secret Even More So

December 14, 2007, 2:30 p.m.

Maybe It's Only Human

How is an unfunded indoor rain forest like a university?

Two stories, one theme.

Gregg Hennigan, "Earthpark decision expected ‘soon,’" The Gazette, December 14, 2007, p. B2.

Editorial, "UI officials must be open about their response to sexual assault allegations," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 14, 2007.

Earthpark. The Iowa indoor rain forest promoters claim to have satisfied Senator Grassley's demand that they match the $50 million earmark of taxpayer's money he's appropriated for their pleasure. They had to submit the documentation by December 1. Apparently they met that deadline.

So, do they actually have $50 million cash in the bank? Do they have pledges that can be called as soon as the pledges total $50 million and are accepted by the Department of Energy as meeting the standards for a match? Or are they offering little more than smoke and mirrors and possibilities of unspecified "in-kind" contributions at some undisclosed time in the future?

No one's talking.

Project CEO David Oman refuses to make public copies of his DOE application -- which is, of course, a "public record," and one in which the public has considerable legitimate interest, given that it is $50 million of our money. Senator Grassley, who admits to having a copy of the application also prefers secrecy to openness, as does the DOE. (The DOE has been presented a number of FOIA requests -- including one from The Gazette -- to which it will, ultimately, have to respond. But it offers no justification for not satisfying those requests now -- or, better still, just putting the document on the Web.)

"The Greatest 'Story Two' Never Told." From November 15 to 21 I wrote five blog entries regarding the alleged sexual assault at the University of Iowa. Nicholas Johnson, "The Greatest 'Story Two' Never Told" in "Not Getting Answers," November 21, 2007 (with links to the prior four).

The designation of a "Story Two" was my effort to make the point that there are really two stories here, not one.

"Story One" involves the alleged incident, victim, accused, and the investigation and evidence obtained. No one -- or at worst very few individuals -- have suggested that story needs to be told in ways that harm individuals and their reputations, or impedes the process of investigation.

"Story Two" has almost literally nothing to do with "Story One." Story Two is the story of what University of Iowa officials were involved, and when, and what they did. Not the names of students. Not students' reports of events. Not which students, by name, spoke with officials. But which officials talked to which other officials and when (as distinguished from what they talked about -- to the extent it would reveal details about the students involved, or what the evidence has revealed, that would have an adverse impact on the students or the investigation).

The Press-Citizen has been pursuing Story Two. Brian Morelli, "UI withholds documents in case; Could reveal if officials responded appropriately to alleged sex assault," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 8, 2007 -- the basis for this morning's editorial, linked above.

Some of the questions the paper is asking UI officials could potentially reach into Story One, and possibly impede the investigation. But the focus of the paper's inquiry involves Story Two. The editorial acknowledges UI President Sally Mason's call for "sensitivity" regarding the alleged accuser, and suggests that any compromising information simply be redacted from the requested documents. But as it concludes, "Answering our questions would in no way preclude the university from being sensitive to the victim. Not answering our questions gives the public cause to distrust the university's motives."

If it turns out that the University has had something to hide regarding its administrators' actions in this case, it will pay a very, very high price indeed for its secrecy and willingness to sweep under the rug of "being sensitive to the victim" what those administrators did, or failed to do. Not only does it give "the public cause to distrust the university's motives," it also puts a very heavy tarnish on whatever statements may be offered in the future when the University may have very legitimate reasons for secrecy and the public is left with no more trust in the truth of what it is being told than the trust it has in the statements of a White House press officer.

Despite the hundreds of lessons history offers as to the folly of attempting stonewalling and cover-ups of that which will, ultimately, become public, it may be only human to think that, "for me, on this occasion, I'll be better off to duck and cover than to come clean."

And that's how an indoor rain forest is like a university.

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