By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Webster Bank signed on this summer to help the University of Connecticut build a new basketball training center, but UConn has refused to say how much the bank is spending or what exactly it will get in return for its millions.
Though it is a public institution, UConn keeps some of the financial information about its athletic fundraising secret by using private entities.
Many universities use private tax-exempt foundations to raise money, but what separates Connecticut from other schools is a measure passed by the state legislature a decade ago that exempts the University of Connecticut Foundation from state freedom of information laws. Also, the state Supreme Court in February ruled the school can keep its lists of donors and season-ticketholders private, saying they amount to trade secrets.
Now the school is asserting that it doesn’t have to release the details of marketing deals, such as the one with Webster, because it is not actually a party to the contracts. The deal is signed by Webster and IMG College, a marketing firm that has an agreement with UConn and more than 70 other schools to administer licensing, media rights and content on school athletic websites.
“The financial arrangement is between Webster and IMG College, not us,” UConn spokesman Mike Enright said.
UConn last week announced it has $22 million in pledges and cash on hand for the basketball facility and needs $10 million more to break ground.
A spokeswoman for Webster, which agreed this summer to became a major sponsor of UConn athletics and support the training center, said it is the bank’s policy not to release details of significant investments.
The Associated Press has filed a request to see a copy of the contract between IMG College and Webster under the state’s freedom of information law, which says that any document that is “used, received, or retained by a public agency” is a public record.
“It’s not clear to me that simply because UConn has used a subcontractor that it has the right to withhold from the public critical information about how this facility is being funded and built,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, a freedom of information advocate in the legislature. “Based on my understanding of the law this information ought to be available to any member of the public, now.”
The school has said it is not certain it even has a copy of the contract, though it said in a news release that the deal “encompasses all aspects of the university, including athletics and the Alumni Association, and integrates media, hospitality, and venue signage as well as use of university intellectual property for branding, promotions, and affinity marketing.”
Charles Davis, an expert on freedom of information issues at the University of Missouri, said it appears to him that the school went to great lengths to structure the deal in such a way as to avoid public disclosure statutes.
“It’s like a third-party player that’s acting on behalf of the athletic department,” he said.
In states such as Colorado and Nevada, school foundations are subject to open records laws. In other states such as Georgia, only donor names are private, but that is not the case in Connecticut. UConn’s foundation sought and received a specific exemption from state freedom of information laws.
Foundation spokesman Arthur Sorrentino said that exemption is necessary to protect the privacy of donors. Making them public, he said, could have a “chilling effect” on school donations. He also disputed assertions that foundation transactions receive little public scrutiny.
“The foundation’s transactions are rigorously reviewed by state auditors and by PricewaterhouseCoopers, who the foundation hires every year at its own cost to do a rigorous audit and analysis of its books,” Sorrentino said.
But state auditor Bob Ward, a former member of the UConn Board of Trustees, said his office does not audit the foundation. It does receive the private audit, he said, as part of its review of the entire university. In its 2011 report, state auditors recommended that UConn’s trustees review and sign off on any foundation transaction that exceeds $1 million, something he said currently does not happen.
Former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto lost a court fight to obtain a list of donors and season-ticketholders from the school when the state’s highest court ruled in February that the school, like a corporation, is entitled to keep trade secrets. The school argued that naming its donors and other supporters would allow other institutions to lure them away.
Pelto said it now is almost impossible to know where all the money given to UConn’s athletic department comes from, what is being done in return for that money, and whether all of the funds are spent according the donors’ wishes.
Davis, the University of Missouri professor, said it’s important for fundraising activities to be accessible to journalists.
He points to a case in 2000 where the media uncovered that Iowa State’s foundation was paying a former football coach $500,000 a year as part of a deferred compensation program. In 2004, records obtained from the University System Foundation of Georgia found that companies doing business with the school donated up to $50,000 to a fund that helped pay the chancellor’s salary. And there are many other examples, he said.
Last year’s private audit of the UConn Foundation by PricewaterhouseCoopers found no improper quid pro quo in its sampling of private donations to UConn and no instance of a university employee receiving funds without approval.
But Mitch Pearlman, a former director of the state Freedom of Information Commission, said the exemption allows the conditions for corruption to exist.
“The more transparency you have, the more accountability you have, because people can’t get away with things in the shadows,” he said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)