ND University System's Top Auditor Says He Was Put On Leave For Promoting Accountability

Perhaps feeling emboldened by the failure of Measure 3 on the statewide ballot (word around the state capitol is that there has been much gloating in the university system office this last week) the North Dakota University System has taken action against some of their top accountability personnel.

In a pre-holiday maneuver, Chief Auditor Timothy Carlson has been placed on administrative leave as has Chief Compliance Officer Kirsten Franzen.

Carlson, specifically, said he’s been accused of making false statements about his work history but suggested to me that the actual reason for his administrative leave (and according to him pending termination) has to do with his efforts to bring accountability to the university system.

“Someone has spent six to eight months digging into my background on internet websites, some of which are not credible,” Carlson told me via telephone this morning. “I have come into possession of a huge stack of documents that they have used to put together a case, a spin doctored case, basically stating that I lied during the interview.”

He said he was “handed a document by Chris Wilson on behalf of Murray Saugsveen yesterday [Monday] morning at about 10:30am. He then helped me pack my personal things and they escorted me to my car.”

Wilson is general counsel for the North Dakota University System. He was brought over from North Dakota State University, and there was involved in several battles between the university system and the legislature over open records including an incident where in lawmakers believe NDSU President Dean Bresciani deleted tens of thousands of emails that were part of an open records request.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]When I asked Carlson directly if he felt he’d been put on leave because of his accountability work, his reply was one word: “Absolutely.”[/mks_pullquote]

Carlson said the supposed justification for the actions against him is alleged exaggeration of his work as an independent contractor before being hired by the university system. But he sees that as just an excuse for Chancellor Larry Skogen and his Cheif of Staff Murray Saugsveen to push him out.

“I’ve had multiple board members tell me they don’t really care what I did when I was self employed,” Carlson said. “What they’re concerned about was my work in internal audit previous to my self employment. But there are existing staff members who evidently don’t want a new boss. They have spent a significant amount of time spin doctoring.”

Certainly there seems to have been a rapid change in position on Carlson’s job performance by university officials. In a May letter Skogen praised Carlson’s work saying he’d done a “very good job of creating an Internal Audit function from whole cloth.” In a September letter from State Board of Higher Education President Kirsten Diederich Carlson was notified of his permanent appointment to his position (along with a raise). “Your work to date has been excellent,” Diederich wrote at the time.

So why is Carlson on his way out? According to Carlson it was because he has been trying to bring accountability to the university system, and because he blew the whistle on at least one instance of university officials withholding public records from requesters.

Carlson said he was working closely with Franzen to develop new policies for the university system concerning issues like conflicts of interest between university officials and contractors as well as a retention policy for things like emails.

I’ve written extensively about the problems with open records requests for emails in the university system – see this article – and it may surprise some of you to learn that the university system apparently has no current retention policy for those sort of records (most state agencies do). Rep. Roscoe Streyle (R-Minot) announced legislation in an interim committee recently that would set in place retention policies for the universities. That was part of what Franzen and Carlson were working on, and Carlson says they’re being attacked because of it.

When I asked Carlson directly if he felt he’d been put on leave because of his accountability work, his reply was one word: “Absolutely.”

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]In an October 10 letter sent to John Bjornson at Legislative Council, Carlson said he would be providing documents that were “selectively omitted” from a previous request by Saugsveen.[/mks_pullquote]

I got in touch with Franzen today, but she declined to comment at this time.

“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 me of his and Franzen’s efforts. “That has met with huge pushback.”

Asked if he believed Franzen working with him was the cause for her being put on leave, Carslon said he couldn’t “say that for certain” but that it probably contributed. “I think it’s a distinct possibility that her work in the area of compliance and code of conduct contributed, yes,” he told me.

Carlson said the pushback against himself started after a meeting of the SBHE’s Audit Committee on August 21. The NDUS hasn’t updated their online posting of minutes for the audit committee since May, but according to Carslon at that meeting he proposed new records retention and conflict of interest policies and that the “pushback” against him started immediately thereafter. Ironically, it was at this meeting that Carslon re-appointed for a two-year term by the committee and later a unanimous vote of the SBHE (see Diederich’s letter linked above).

Another factor in this move against Carlson may have been his decision to notify legislative legal counsel that they weren’t getting all of the public records they requested from the university system.

In an October 10 letter sent to John Bjornson at Legislative Council, Carlson said he would be providing documents that were “selectively omitted” from a previous request by Saugsveen.

“As Chief Auditor for NDUS, I have a professional obligation to provide information that I believe may have been selectively omitted when responding to your request,” Carlson wrote.

I’ll have more on what those records on in a later post.

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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