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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

AG investigating details of DSU trustees' dinner meeting

The state Attorney General’s office is asking members of Delaware State University’s Board of Trustees to provide sworn affidavits about a dinner some attended the night before the Jan. 11 regular board meeting. State officials are investigating the dinner in response to a complaint by government watchdog group Common Cause, which is accusing the Board of Trustees of violating Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act.

The letter dated Jan. 23 from deputy Attorney General W. Michael Tupman asks each member who attended the Jan. 10 gathering at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington to detail “how they came to be invited to the dinner, what they believed the purpose of the dinner was and any subjects discussed during the dinner.”

Tupman also asked which of their spouses attended or were invited to the gathering, who paid for the dinner and whether any members of the Board were reimbursed for time, travel or other expenses.

Trustees who were at the dinner said the Schwartz Center for the Arts was among the topics discussed that evening. The board voted 9-4 at the regular meeting the next day to spend $1.5 million for part ownership in the downtown Dover theater.

How many trustees attended the dinner, what their conversation was about or in what context the Schwartz Center was discussed is unclear. Trustees who weren’t at the dinner said such gatherings put the university on shaky ethical ground.

Common Cause filed the complaint based on a Jan. 18 News Journal story about the dinner.

DSU officials who were at the dinner couldn’t agree on how many trustees attended. Some trustees who weren’t there said they didn’t find out about the gathering until the next day. Trustees said a variety of issues, including the Schwartz Center, were discussed and that DSU President Allen L. Sessoms has planned similar gatherings in the past.

In Delaware, a public meeting is defined as any formal or informal gathering of a quorum of members of any public body for purposes of talking about or taking action on public business. DSU and the University of Delaware are exempt from much of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, but their boards of trustees are not.

Earlier this month, Common Cause member Robert Reeder sent a letter to the Attorney General’s office saying DSU trustees violated Freedom of Information laws at the dinner by conducting public business outside a public forum.

After investigating the matter and reviewing the information requested, the Attorney General’s office will make a written determination about whether a violation occurred.


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