Environmentalists Use Records Law to Investigate KU Economist

Attorney says FOIA request is driven by politics

David Koch / AP
February 13, 2015

College environmentalists are using public records laws to investigate the circumstances surrounding the hiring of an economist at the University of Kansas (KU) who has spoken out against wind subsidies, according to his attorney.

Dr. Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the university, found himself at the center of an environmentalist campaign after testifying to the state legislature that Kansas should do away with green energy quotas in the spring of 2014. Shortly after his testimony, Schuyler Kraus, a KU student and environmentalist, submitted a public records request demanding all of his email correspondence dating back to 2004.

"In light of recent testimony made by Dr. Arthur P. Hall in favor of S.B. 433, an effort to repeal Kansas Renewable Portfolio Standards, Students for a Sustainable Future (SSF) endeavors to bring KU students and Kansas citizens greater transparency regarding Dr. Hall’s background, connections, and affiliations to disclose significant conflicts of interest," the records request begins. "The processes by which Dr. Hall and others were hired at KU were orchestrated by Charles and/or David Koch."

Curtis Tideman, Hall’s attorney, said that the request is driven by politics, rather than "academic integrity." Hall served as chief economist at Koch Companies Public Sector before taking the job at the center, which arose from a multi-million endowment from the Kochs. Hall is being targeted for his résumé, rather than his research, according to Tideman.

"It’s very clear to me from the language of the request that the reason it was made was because Dr. Hall gave testimony to legislators contrary to Schuyler Kraus’ positions on wind power," he said. "It’s not about transparency, but retribution. This group isn’t going after every donor who gives restricted money, they have picked one in particular they want, quote, transparency about."

Tideman and Hall intervened in the case seeking to exempt personal emails from the disclosure. They are now asking the courts to clarify what constitutes a personal email. Hall said that he has nothing to hide, but fears the process could create a slippery slope where academics will be harassed if they participate in the political process.

"KU is looking out for my best interests as a faculty member, but there’s very little guidance on some of the interpretations of the exemptions," Hall said. "I knew [my suit] was going to create suspicion and commotion but in the long run having improved guidance would be helpful. … My overall objection is that the students are misusing open records law as a fishing expedition to sully my name."

Hall is not the first university researcher to face open records requests from activist groups. Michael Mann, formerly of the University of Virginia and a researcher at the center of the Climategate scandal, launched a suit to block records requests for his climate data and communications. A conservative group filed records requests for the emails of Prof. William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison after it was revealed that his position was funded in part by union money.

Ryan C. Fairchild, a federal law clerk who studied the intersection of academic freedom and state FOIA laws at the University of North Carolina Law School, said that the common thread in all of these cases is the use of records laws by political actors to intimidate opponents.

"There are cases of harassment where professors say something politically charged and they are asked for records not because of their research, but the politically charged statement," he said. "This is the stifling of free speech and research."

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) used similar arguments when it defended professors Cronon and Mann. Its Kansas chapter, however, not only supports SSF’s request, it is financing more than half of the $1,800 needed to pay for it. Kraus, who did not respond to a request for comment, posted an Instagram photo of a $1,000 check from the KS Conference of the AAUP. The memo reads "Gift for Koch Brothers," and a note from a Dr. B tells Kraus to "GIVE ‘EM HELL."

Prof. Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, president of the state chapter of AAUP and an aerospace engineer at KU, said that the group’s decision to back the FOIA request was in "lockstep" with AAUP’s positions on academic integrity and had nothing to do with politics. Hall’s case differs from that of Mann and Cronon because he is an administrator, rather than a professor, according to Barrett.

"Administrators are state employees and accordingly their records are subject to FOIA. I don’t see any dangerous sort of precedent of being set," he said. "We see it as a maintenance on academic integrity."

A national spokeswoman for the AAUP said that no one was available to discuss the case and did not respond to a request for comment on the state chapter’s actions.

Barrett works extensively with aerospace companies such as Cessna. He said that he would welcome any records requests about his communications connected to that work, though he would want his private communications protected. The real issue for the AAUP, he said, was how Hall was appointed. After speaking with Kraus, Barrett said that the group concluded that the university failed to properly vet Hall.

"Director Hall was appointed to an administrative position that has no teaching duties at all. Yet he’s publishing as if he’s a tenured faculty member. It tarnishes academic integrity," Barrett said. "He hasn’t done anything improper. The failing is on [KU’s] conflict of interest oversight committee."

Fairchild said that any time a researcher is targeted with the broad records requests, it threatens the ability of academics to participate in public debate.

"If you have the ability to use records requests to harass someone, regardless of the background, it's worrisome if it's used to censor academic freedom. You need to provide protection," Fairchild said.

Hall said that if "the records are released, there’s nothing I would be ashamed of," but added that the AAUP’s position is naïve. If his records are released, it will have a chilling effect on all academics exploring contentious issues.

"It’s a pure hassle factor. I’m doing work you don’t like, so you hassle me. It’s sand in the gears of the research process," he said. "The whole idea of academic freedom is that you can pursue whatever idea you want. As a researcher I have no power other than the power of persuasion. The quality of the scholarship is the integrity. I’m not doing anything in secret. I’m no one’s puppet and no one’s trying to make me their puppet."

Fairchild said that state lawmakers should include special exemptions for academics to address these tactics.

"State laws can be overly broad and I think it's because legislatures have not fully thought about the consequences. You should strike the balance [of transparency] leaning toward academic freedom," he said.