Former University System Lawyer Alleges Cover-Ups And Intimidation In Filing

Currently North Dakota lawmakers are debating legislation which would move control of the North Dakota University System’s lawyers from the university system to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office (a bill to similarly move the NDUS auditors to the State Auditor’s Office has already passed).

Lawmakers may want to consider some recent events as they make that decision.

Over at Watchdog today I write about Kirsten Franzen, formerly the chief compliance officer for the North Dakota University System. SAB readers will remember Franzen as the other person terminated alongside former chief auditor Timothy Carlson, and as the person university system officials thought tipped me off about their open meeting violation in July of last year (she didn’t).

Franzen had declined comment for my previous posts, but has since provided me with a copy of a notice of claim (see below) she’s filed with the state alerting them to possible impending litigation. She also declined comment for this story, stating that the document – which is not a public record – speaks for itself.

In that notice, Franzen makes some bombshell accusations.

Including accusing Chancellor Larry Skogen of refusing to investigate tens of thousands of emails deleted from NDSU President Dean Bresciani’s account shortly after lawmakers requested them. The public story from the university system was that the deletion happened inadvertently, but Franzen claims that internally many believe it was done on purpose:

“While Bresciani claimed the deletion was due to an automatic deletion process, technology personnel assured NDUS Senior Staff there was very little likelihood that this was true based on their skills and experience,” the notice states. “Technology personnel advised Franzen that it appeared as if the email was intentionally deleted.”

In an opinion issued Nov. 22, 2013, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem found the NDUS violated state open records laws in failing to turn the emails over to lawmakers, but he could not determine whether the emails were deleted on purpose.

In her notice, Franzen says Skogen declined to investigate the matter internally after speaking with Bresciani.

“Several members of the NDUS Senior Staff, including Franzen, strongly encouraged Chancellor Skogen to have an independent investigator examine Bresciani’s email disappearance,” the document states. “Skogen initially agreed and asked then-General Counsel Claire Ness to arrange for an investigation.”

After Ness began the process, Skogen decided not to pursue it, after receiving a phone call from Bresciani, the narrative says.

Ness declined to speak with me about this story citing her current position in Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office.

Franzen also claims that she and Ness faced intimidation from Skogen and NDUS Chief of Staff Murray Sagsveen over their cooperation with the AG office’s inquiry into the missing emails:

Franzen says she and other university system staff cooperated with the investigation into an open records complaint filed over the missing emails, which landed them in hot water with Skogen, according to the notice.

After the attorney general’s office issued a “fairly negative” opinion on the open records complaint in November 2013, Skogen held “unpleasant” meetings with Franzen and Ness, wherein he “badgered” them for details on what information they provided investigators, as well as what comments other colleagues may have provided, the notice says.

Sagsveen is alleged to have participated in these meetings, which ultimately led to at least one resignation.

“Ness, who now works for the Attorney General’s Office, was later pressured to resign because of her candor with the Attorney General’s office in the Bresciani matter,” the document states.

There was also intimidation alleged in the notice because of Franzen’s supposed contacts with the media (read: me), which I’ve written about before.

According to Franzen, what ultimately got her terminated from the university system was her push for new compliance policies which didn’t sit well with Sagsveen:

In the notice, Franzen says her duties with the NDUS included responding to complaints of fraud, waste and abuse reported through a fraud hotline established by the university system. The notice says the hotline received “numerous” complaints regarding top university system officials, including Sagsveen, but Skogen’s administration chose not to investigate many of these instances.

Franzen claims she developed a legal compliance program to address these complaints, but Sagsveen began a campaign to pressure her into resigning after she presented it to the State Board of Higher Education.

Carlson says his push to bring greater accountability to the university system drew backlash from Sagsveen and others. “We were working on upgrading our code of conduct to a more contemporary corporate version that would require the disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest of decision makers throughout the entire system,” Carlson told Watchdog in November, referring to his Franzen’s efforts. “That has met with huge pushback.”

I also contacted Carlson for comment, but he declined citing his separation agreement with the university. Carlson is prohibited from making “any public or private disparaging remarks, statements, interviews, publications or other written that might tend to defame or lessen the reputation” of the North Dakota University System, according to a copy of Carlson’s separation agreement I obtained through an open records request.

A request for comment sent to Sagsveen was declined via email by Vice Chancellor for Strategic Engagement Linda Donlin, who referred to the matter as a “pending legal proceeding.” Donlin said the “allegations and accusations made by Ms. Franzen in her Notice are denied and will be addressed, fairly and properly, in the appropriate legal forum.”

Franzen is requesting either reinstatement to her former position with full pay and benefits, or a monetary settlement for a not-yet-established sum.

Here’s the entire notice of claim filed by Franzen:

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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