Aug. 30, 2007
By Joe Brennan
Ohio University's Office of Internal Audit has stopped accepting reports of alleged wrongdoing on its EthicsPoint Web site and telephone reporting system, citing concerns over individual privacy.
President Roderick J. McDavis made the decision Aug. 24 at the recommendation of Internal Auditor Kathryn Chambers Gilmore.
The decision came one day after the university was obligated to turn over all records from the system, including substantiated and unsubstantiated claims, to The Post, Ohio University's student-run newspaper. The paper is editorially independent from the university.
The records contained the names of several individuals, including many who were found not to have committed violations of law or policy and others who identified potential problems.
Gilmore believes The Post request could defeat the purpose of the tool.
"I feel very strongly that it would be wrong to reveal the names of people who are the subject of unsubstantiated allegations," she said. "It also concerns me that the identities of whistleblowers could become known. These people have done the right thing by reporting wrongdoing, and they should not have to worry about potential retaliation."
University attorneys have determined that Internal Audit is legally obligated to make the requested records available.
"The Post has assured us that it will be responsible with this information, and we appreciate that," Gilmore said. "Nevertheless, we are unwilling to potentially expose innocent people and whistleblowers to the risk that their identities could be revealed."
For that reason, the university has suspended the receipt of further reports through EthicsPoint until it can impose appropriate safeguards consistent with Ohio's Public Records Act.
Gilmore said the Office of Internal Audit will continue to accept reports, including anonymous telephone reports that protect the identity of the complainant. She encourages individuals to telephone her with any concerns they may have about potential fraud, waste or abuse at Ohio University. Her direct line is 740-593-1865. To protect the identity of a call-in number, callers may use a calling card, call from a pay phone or dial *67 before Gilmore's number.
The Board of Trustees and McDavis established the EthicsPoint Web site in February 2006 to give employees an additional method of reporting suspected fraud, waste or abuse. More than 30 reports have been received, including one that led to the recent conviction of an employee for stealing more than $30,000. Another report resulted in the repayment of educational benefits that were improperly awarded to an individual.
"From time to time, some people do use systems such as EthicsPoint to make personal comments or unsubstantiated allegations -- or to report something they think is unethical but that turns out to be appropriate and lawful," Gilmore said. Those claims are dismissed, and she believes they should never become public.
Gilmore sees a side benefit of the hotline: improved dialogue between employees and managers.
"This system gave a voice to those who felt voiceless. It was a way for employees to share concerns that they may have been uncomfortable discussing face to face with their supervisors," Gilmore said. "It gave management the opportunity to respond, and the employee could remain anonymous if he or she wished. I thought this feature was valuable, and its suspension is a loss."
Many other public universities in Ohio offer EthicsPoint or similar hotlines, including Miami University and Ohio State University.
On July 25, The Summer Post submitted a request for "all documents relating to the EthicsPoint [s]oftware, including case files, contracts and correspondence."
The request triggered a "considered and thoughtful legal review," including consultation with the Ohio Attorney General's Office, said John Burns, Ohio University's director of legal affairs.
After determining that the records would have to be made public, the Office of Legal Affairs notified the individuals whose names were in the documents.
Ohio law contains provisions to protect the identities of people who call in tips to police hotlines, citizen reward programs or similar ethics hotlines established by K-12 school boards.
"As a professional auditor, I think that Ohio's legislators should extend these same protections to university ethics hotlines," Gilmore said. "It is good public policy to have open records in government. Yet it is equally good public policy to have a way for citizens to expose fraud and waste without fear of reprisal."