Sunday, January 3, 2010

CMS - CSU Official Calls Investigative Reporter "A Twit"

From the Orange County Register - Looks like someone in the CSU really dislikes talking to reporters about the CMS project!

Source: OC Register Jan. 1 2010

THE SETUP: Our intern at OC Watchdog last quarter - Lindsey Ambrose - had made a request under the California Public Records Act to the chancellor’s office at California State University. (This was in the wake of our report on David Ernst, the former CSU official skewered for taking at least $152,441 in improper expense reimbursements for “unnecessary” trips to Shanghai, London, Singapore, Amsterdam,etc.)

Anyway, the state auditor had also produced a scathing investigation of tremendous cost overruns in CSU’s new computer system, and Ernst was head of IT during that exercise. Faculty accused him of having a “serious conflict of interest,” receiving compensation from the software company that ultimately got a $39 million software contract.

This sounded interesting. So Ambrose asked CSU for:

1. All correspondence between Ernst and others concerning the contracts.
2. Change orders, internal documents, and any other documentation related to the increasing cost of the contract.
3. Any written feedback from campuses regarding the new system.

THE REACTION: csu-sealThe response came from Claudia Keith, assistant vice chancellor for public affairs at CSU.

We do not have any way of pulling or organizing or locating these documents that you have requested. I would suggest, as I did last time, that we send to you the contract, which contains any amendments, change orders, etc., as well as a link to an audit of CMS. That will provide you with an overview of CMS and the associated contract. Let me know how you would like to proceed.


Now, we’ll take some responsibility here for the broadness of Ambrose’s request. We journalist-types routinely word our requests generally, so as not to inadvertently exclude documents that might be important. This apparently drives the official types who have to deal with our requests up the wall. It’s something of a cat-and-mouse game, and you can feel the tension in Keiths’ response.

THE BONUS ROUND: Ambrose responded politely.

Hi Claudia,
Thank you. I will take that information for now, but I am not necessarily considering the request fulfilled. Let me know the next step in obtaining those documents.

Again, we take some responsibility here for advising Ambrose to take what she could get quickly, but to not give up on the rest.

And it is here that CSU’s Keith apparently got angry. Soon a message landed in Ambrose’s inbox, from Keith, saying simply:

What a twit

Moments later, CSU tried to recall the twit message, but it was too late. Ambrose, rather red-faced, responded:

Actually, I’m not a twit. I’m just following the law. I hope you do too.

CODA: We kidded with Keith, saying that we KNOW officials think we’re twits, and it’s refreshing to hear someone actually say it. To which Keith responded:

No Teri I don’t think most reporters are twits. There are lots of good ones who do their homework and are thoughtful.. I told her she would need to narrow the scope of her request and that we could send her the CMS contract and go from there. To date she has not done that. I obviously did not mean to send that comment to Lindsey but it does get very frustrating when reporters abuse the PRA process and really have no idea what or why they are requesting something. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to respond to these and they are often fishing expeditions. Perhaps that would be a more interesting topic for your column.

And she’s right. There is a tension between us reporter-types on our “fishing expeditions,” and the folks who have to herd the fish.

But those fish are public fish, aren’t they? And the public has a right to see them (however slippery and inaccessible and inconvenient they may be), doesn’t it?

We’ll be working with Keith’s office to hone our request and make it manageable. But we still want to know more about Ernst’s cozy relationship with the vendor at CSU.

And in the meantime, the moral of the story may well be: Check the “to” field carefully before hitting the “send” button on that email.

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