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USF didn't provide documents as requested last year

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


The forced resignation of University of South Florida athletic director Paul Griffin came just days after the St. Petersburg Times disclosed that several documents relating to charges of racial discrimination within the women's basketball program were not given to the newspaper when requested last August, possibly in violation of the state's public records law.

After those allegations, made by former players last August, the Times twice filed public record requests for all correspondence and documents, including memos and e-mail messages, between Griffin, former USF assistant athletic director Hiram Green, Equal Opportunity Affairs coordinator Camille Blake and women's basketball coach Jerry Ann Winters dating to March 5, 1996.

At least five documents related to the university's internal investigation were not included in documents received by the Times. University officials said this week that they should have been. According to the Sunshine Law, any public officer who knowingly violates the provision is subject to suspension and removal, and could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison, a $1,000 fine or both.

Green gave three of the missing documents to the Times during an interview Feb. 28, asserting that they chronicled Griffin's attempt to cover up the allegations. Green contends that Griffin forced him to write a letter against his will to the university's Equal Opportunity Affairs office, saying the matter had been resolved.

In one of the missing memos, Green wrote to Griffin that he was "very uncomfortable with this letter because of my inquiries and investigation."

Griffin has repeatedly said Green was not forced to write the letter and was a willing participant in the steps taken by the department to correct the matter.

When asked about the missing documents, Griffin said they all were turned over to the USF media relations department, which then forwarded the package to USF general counsel Olga Joanow.

"I don't think there's been any withholding of information because clearly any memorandum would have been public record," Griffin said Thursday.

However, Michael Reich, interim director of media relations, said his department did not receive those documents from the athletic department.

Harry Battson, who was working as USF's associate vice president for public affairs at the time and is now the assistant vice chancellor for communications at the University of Califorina-Irvine, said the memos should have been included.

"I really can't tell you why those would not have been part of the others," said Battson, who handled the request for the media relations department.

Griffin said if he was attempting to keep the memos in question away from the Times, they would not have been given to the EOA office or the law firm of former 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Joseph W. Hatchett.

However, the EOA's investigation into the allegations of retaliation by former player Dione Smith was released in December, four months after the Times' request. And the report from Hatchett, who conducted a four-month independent investigation examining the university's policies and procedures concerning racial allegations, was released in January.

Both those reports were made available to the public and included the missing memos.

"That wouldn't meet the need of the public records law," said Paul Tash, president and editor of the Times. "The requirement is that public agencies provide records within a reasonable time, and reasonable might mean a couple of days or in some extreme cases, a couple of weeks. But it certainly doesn't mean four months.

"Further, if the university was going to withhold documents rather than comply with the public records request, it won't do to say we'll slide these into a stack of other documents to be released later. It's completely unsatisfactory and doesn't come even close, in my view, to the public records law."

The Times is not alone in questioning the university's handling of public records requests. Lawyer Jonathan Alpert, who represents Smith and seven other players who have filed suit against USF, sent a letter to university associate general counsel Henry W. Lavendera on Friday insisting USF officials have not complied with his requests.

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