UA evasive on emails with a columnist | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, November 14, 2013

UA evasive on emails with a columnist

Posted By on Thu, Nov 14, 2013 at 7:10 AM

TEAM PLAYER: Columnist Mike Masterson, at a pre-game chancellor's reception, has been a media supporter of Chancellor David Gearhart  in recent UA controversy. - FACEBOOK
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  • TEAM PLAYER: Columnist Mike Masterson, at a pre-game chancellor's reception, has been a media supporter of Chancellor David Gearhart in recent UA controversy.

An interesting element of the ongoing story of budget problems in the University of Arkansas Advancement Division has been a divide in outlook in the pages of the state's dominant news medium, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The reporting staff has made a titanic effort to cover the budget problem, the firing of UA spokesman John Diamond and Diamond's allegations that Chancellor G. David Gearhart resisted transparency and shredded documents related to the issue.

The editorial page of the newspaper, and its leader, Paul Greenberg, have often been critical. Greenberg has criticized Gearhart on other issues, including curriculum, as well.

Then there's Mike Masterson. A former full-time employee in Northwest Arkansas, he's written warmly often about the university and Gearhart. Nov. 10, he gave much of his column to the "other side" of the paper shredding in prepared comments of UA spokesman Mark Rushing. This followed a recent extensive news account about new discoveries in the saga.

Did Gearhart destroy relevant documents? Wrote Masterson: "I don’t know Diamond. But the David Gearhart I do know fairly well lives his life far distant from being that dumb or deceptive." 

Gearhart has long cultivated Masterson. No crime in that. But Gearhart's critics suggested I should look at university treatment of Masterson and their correspondence. An FOI request confirms that Masterson in each of the last five years has been on the select list of people Gearhart invites to sit in his skybox at Razorback football games and attend pre-game parties at the University House and other locales.  That record shows the columnist attended at least three games and two receptions.  (Spokesman Mark Rushing says Gearhart invites "thousands." Thousands? He explained he asks about 1,000 a year to the 100-seat skybox, overbooking to account for no-shows.)

I also asked for Gearhart-Masterson communications.  This is where things got interesting. Understand, Masterson is an innocent bystander (and he hasn't responded to my e-mails on the subject). Masterson might find Gearhart not deceptive, but I'd disagree. It was another instance — as I wrote about in a column this week — of at least artful dodging by the University of Arkansas and the Gearhart administration. They told me there "are no e-mails.' In the course of communications with UA, I would, however, independently receive some of the material I sought from a confidential source.  It  illustrates the mutual admiration of Gearhart and Masterson and some insights into the world of public relations and Arkansas media. The play-by-play:

I wrote Mark Rushing and, in addition to requesting information about football and party attendance, said:

I'd also like a copy of e-mails sent by Masterson to Chancellor Gearhart since 2011.

To that question, Rushing responded:

Chancellor Gearhart did not locate any emails from or to Mr. Masterson since 2011. 

I followed up:

Does "not locate" mean there were none? Does he recall any? Has he purged his e-mail?

That prompted this response from Rushing:

As for the email question, I checked with Chancellor Gearhart again and there are no emails.

I then sent him one more question last night:

Would it change David Gearhart's recollection that he'd never exchanged e-mail with Mike Masterson if I told you I had copies of numerous such e-mails?

In retrospect, I realized that "there are none," might have been a term of the deceptive arts, not a denial of e-mail exchanges. So I clarified:

Has Gearhart begun purging e-mails so as to be able to say "there are no emails" when questions like mine arise?

I found this response in my in-box this morning:

As you know, we are required by law to provide you with any emails that you request under FOIA. We take that obligation very seriously. As I previously told you, Chancellor Gearhart does not have any emails from or to Mike Masterson.

With that said, Mr. Masterson has been a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette for practically the entire time of Dr. Gearhart's tenure at the University. I feel confident that they have exchanged emails at some point during those 16 years. 

You'll note this answer does not address the purging question or respond to a specific request that the university re-create any recent e-mails Gearhart might have deleted.

UPDATE: Rushing commented further on deleted e-mails:

Let's think about this from a practical standpoint. University presidents and chancellors, like Dr. Gearhart, can receive hundreds of emails a day. As you might imagine, leaders in higher education have very large constituencies. It would be totally impractical to manage that volume of email and attempt to to retain every email. I'm guessing other busy professionals would agree. 

As I said, I have numerous copies of e-mails between Gearhart and Masterson.  Since neither Gearhart nor Masterson will discuss them, I can't guarantee authenticity beyond saying they are attested to by sources who've been accurate before. Read on:

Some standard e-mail headings and routine salutations and closings have been omitted.

March 12, 2012
Gearhart is happy about a kind word in a Democrat-Gazette editorial.

From: G. David Gearhart
To: Mike Masterson

I think I saw your hand in today’s editorial.
Many, many thanks.
You are the best!

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart
Subject: Re: today's editorial

Always glad to help, although I was disappointed to see any reference to the WAC folks help was cut out in LR. I specifically sent that note down there, but, oh well. Glad you appreciated it. It is a fine idea. Cheers.

All my best, to Jane too, that little rascal.

Dec. 4, 2012
Gearhart wrote Masterson to say “nice column” about his writing about the “dizzying expansion” at the UA and the need for the legislature to provide competitive salaries.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Keep up your fine work Chancellor. You and the university have come a long (and admirable) way since our lunch at Powerhouse a few weeks after you'd unpacked into your new responsibilities. Too bad about the Choate mess. Things like this are inevitable though when an organization expands so rapidly in size and numbers. Bound to be those blasted speed bumps every so often.

Best and my best to Jane, Merry Christmas.

Dec. 14, 2012
This group of e-mails follows submission of an op-ed by Gearhart to the Democrat-Gazette in response to criticism.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Subject: Good morning

Good morning Chancellor - Just checking with you to see if you received any reaction or feedback to your op-ed submission? If so, did they say when they will publish it? And, did WEH [Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter E. Hussman] ever respond to your message to him? Believe me, I can understand the level and nature of your frustrations here.

From: G. David Gearhart
To: Mike Masterson
Thanks my friend:
I’m told they will run the op-ed, maybe this weekend, but not certain.
Got a short e-mail from Walter saying he would be happy to talk with me. I don’t plan on calling him.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Thanks for the update. I'm just one person with one opinions, but knowing Walter the way I have (I was the first editor he hired back in 1973 at Hot Springs) I think it might be wise and beehoove you to sit down with him and express your feelings backed up with the facts you have. I know he detests conflict but he's also reasonable and listens to others' concerns very well. I just believe you have a side to tell in this and it makes perfect sense from every perspective in my view.

From: G. David Gearhart
To: Mike Masterson

Thanks Mike. Really appreciate your good advice.
Isn't this tragedy in Connecticut horrible. What has come of our nation.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Absolutely terrible. I have no words to even describe how I'm feeling, Judy too. Being parents we all can relate to the horror... the price we pay for freedom is becoming increasingly expensive to our lives and our souls.

By the way, I kissed [sic; missed?] [Paul Greenberg’s] PG's diatribes (probably by intent). Would you happen to have someone who could e-mail me the one or ones that most distressed you? I'd sure appreciate it much.

Dec. 16, 2012

Masterson elaborates on other writing in the Democrat-Gazette.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Good morning - I did find the last editorial that praises [D-G reporter] Tracie [Dungan] and draws comparison between UCA mess and the UA's budget shortfall.

Since I haven't followed the news stories as closely as I should have, has Tracie done a professional job in your estimation... and did you respond to the editorial's implication that you and others tried in e-mails to keep Choate's mistake quiet? I also noticed where Business Journal took issue with the editorial that gave credit to Tracie for "breaking" the story. What is the real story there from your view?

Dec. 18, 2012
Masterson writes Gearhart with questions on the brewing Advancement Division troubles.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Subject: RE: Season's Greetings from the University of Arkansas

Sorry to keep bothering you. But it seems to me the e-mails that mention "confidentiality" presented the biggest rub in all this where the press is concerned. Had they not been written, the question in my mind would never have been raised.
In light of that, how would you briefly characterize those and the role they likely played in any misperceptions?

From: G. David Gearhart
To: Mike Masterson

Both Brad and Don used “confidential” or “confidentiality” in an August 20 email exchange about a specific situation—the short-term $500,000 loan from the College of Engineering’s foundation account to the Advancement Division to cover the Advancement’s freeze on their foundation assets in the first quarter of this fiscal year. (It was paid back in October after Advancement received its quarterly pay-out from the UA Foundation.) Brad’s choice of the word has to be looked at in context. Brad was expressing frustration or anger that the College of Engineering’s budget officer had told a co-worker that “Development is broke.” Development wasn’t broke, and Brad felt that the budget officer’s comment was unprofessional and would fuel false rumors of lost assets. Don Pederson clarified the situation in his e-mail to the Engineering dean, sent that same day.

If you look at the time frame and the other correspondence that we’ve provided to the media, it is clear that Brad was under a lot of pressure from me and Don Pederson to determine the cause of his overspending. Except for the August 20 expressions of frustrations over the false “Development is broke” statement, every piece of correspondence, documentation, and action shows that we were trying to 1) stabilize the division’s budget, 2) address the personnel issues, and 3) make the necessary stakeholder notifications after steps one and two were determined.
Hope this helps.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

This helps a lot. In other words, the terms "confidential" and "confidentiality" dealt with a specific situation rather then the budget shortfall as a whole. zat correct?

From: G. David Gearhart
To: Mike Masterson


DEC. 23, 2012-Jan. 6, 2013
Gearhart receives copies of mail between Masterson and a reader responding to the Masterson column Dec. 22 defending Gearhart. Wrote Masterson in that column:

I’ll not speak to the editorials. But for any manager faced with such a startling revelation, seems to me that Gearhart handled this mistake professionally and transparently.

From: Sissi Brandon
To: Mike Masterson

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your professional, clear and educational article on the situation at Fayettevile. Everything that you wrote was correct. It is such a shame that Greenberg dishonors both his profession and the Democrat/Gaz by slanting the news.

I know that one can take liberties with an editorial, but the truth should always prevail. How sad.

Happy Holidays to you and yours,
Sissi Brandon, UA 1955

From: Mike Masterson
To: Sissi Brandon

Subject: RE: U of A

What a kind and appreciated message to receive on Christmas Eve. Thank you Sissi. The David Gearhart I know is an honorable man with a lot of integrity. When he provides information for publication, I know it is correct.

After 42 years in this biz, I can thankfully say I've never intentionally written false information. And when I have been mistaken, it's always been easy for me to simply say so and move on.

Thank you again and all my best, blessings,

From: Sissi Brandon
To: G. David Gearhart

Hopefully, the storm has passed and PG is out searching for other innocent parties to malign.

From: "G. David Gearhart"
To: Sissi Brandon

Lets hope so.
Thanks so much for your marvelous support.

Feb. 21, 2013
Masterson gathers material for a column.

From: Mike Masterson
To: G. David Gearhart

Subject: Hello and a question

Hello Chancellor - I heard something the other day on TV about the latest rankings of 'best value' regarding public colleges but am having difficulty tracking it down for some reason. Could some there perhaps bump me a release on this latest accolade?

All my best, hi to JG.

From: G. David Gearhart
To: Mike Masterson
Subject: RE: Hello and a question

Hey Mike:
See below.
Jane sends her best.

[news release attached]
University Named One of Top 75 'Best Values' Among Public Colleges by Princeton Review
Recognition similar to that received from Kiplinger’s, Forbes, others
Follow the University of Arkansas on Twitter @uarkansas…..

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