Oswego School Superintendent: 'Nothing to Hide' in 'Re-election' Email Affair
Dec 22, 2014 03:36PM ● Published by Steven Jack
Superintendent Matthew Wendt
Oswego School District 308 Superintendent Matthew Wendt last week faced direct questioning over a possible ethical breach by a district employee and two School Board members.
The questioning came during an interview with local radio station WSPY in which Wendt said the district has “nothing to hide” in its fight to withhold documents included in a Sept. 26 Freedom of Information Act request from Only Oswego.
The documents, which Wendt said are drafts and as such are protected from disclosure under FOIA, are part of an email string between district communications director Brian Graves and board members Brent Lightfoot and Bill Walsh. The title of the emails is “Re-election press release.”
“We’re not failing to release them because we have anything to hide,” Wendt told WSPY. “I know that there’s always in this culture we live in this conspiracy theory and all the rumors. I get it. I’ve been in this business long enough to see quite a bit. We don’t have anything to hide. We would be setting a precedent, however, if we released those documents under draft form.”
In the emails that date back to Sept. 8, biographical information is exchanged between Graves, Walsh and Lightfoot with Graves asking the board members to edit the documents. Graves also asks Lightfoot for a "statement" that he plans to “polish” before sending out with photos.
Lightfoot and Walsh are both up for re-election in April and both have announced their re-election campaigns.
While the district’s FOIA response includes some attachments, others are missing. The district cited an exemption in the FOIA law that allows drafts of documents to be withheld from requests.
Illinois law and school district policy prohibits employees from intentionally taking part in political activity during compensated time.
Despite previous ethical concerns about the exchange from at least two school board members, a board statement from Monday, Dec. 8, said the board believes there was nothing improper about the email exchange.
Wednt told WSPY last week that Graves was merely working on a story about the April election that was to be sent out to local media as a press release. That release was never sent to local media outlets.
Wendt called the election “big news” that he believes is within Graves job responsibilities to disseminate to local media.
“Brian Graves is my director of communications. I recruited and hired him out of the university setting. So, when you’re sitting as the director of communications at a university and one of the members of the board of regents offers the information to you that they’re going to run for re-election, that’s big news. And that’s exactly what it was for our district. … When one of our seven elected board members decides to run for re-election that’s news to the public," Wendt told WSPY.
As for the board statement from the Dec. 8 meeting stating board members believe no ethics violation had occurred, Wendt said that statement was made after discussions with the district’s attorney. Wendt did not give a direct answer when asked if school board members had seen all the documents related to the issue before coming to their conclusion.
“The school attorney would have examined the documents. There was advice by the counsel, and the board members made a decision through the process they have under policy. You also have to keep something in mind here. This is the board doing this; it isn’t the superintendent or staff," Wendt told WSPY.
In a statement after the Dec. 8 board pronouncement, board Vice President Alison Swanson said she had not seen all the emails and thus couldn’t make a determination if an ethics violation had occurred.
Following the denial of portions of the original FOIA request, Only Oswego asked Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office to review the denial to determine whether the draft exemption sited applies to the unreleased attachments.
The Attorney General’s office opened an inquiry Nov. 24, asking the district to turn over the attachments for confidential review. The district responded Dec. 10 by providing those attachments to the state, but re-claimed their exempt draft document status in withholding them from public view.
Only Oswego filed a response to district’s response Dec. 14, and the case is pending a further review by the Attorney General’s office.