The Fall of the West(ern): Perry Mills gets a new roll in the barrel

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Wed, May 27, 2009, 4:58 pm  //  Guest writer

Guest writer Paud de Armond has followed this issue closely.

Tuesday, May 26, Division One of the Washington Appeals Court handed down a ruling in the case of Perry Mills v. Western Washington University. It’s a long and complex tale:

The public record is mostly dominated by the university’s attempt to fire whistle-blower Professor Perry Mills and, failing that, to silence him. The ugly secret the university has tried to hide is the misappropriation of student course fees in the theater department. After blowing the whistle on his superiors, Mills found himself in hot water.

No criminal complaint has been filed, but state law is clear about diverting funds.

In March 2003, in response to a complaint from Mills, the university began an audit on the missing student course fees. Mark Kuntz, the department chair who diverted the money, was appointed to the audit committee and also to a committee to rewrite the university policy on student course fees. In May 2004, Kuntz wrote the first memo demanding Mills be fired. By July 2004, the cover-up was complete and the sanitized audit report was officially released.

It immediately drew fire from a former dean, who memo’ed the university auditor, “To have claimed, as the [Provost’s] response does, that no action will be taken because no policies were in place is absolutely false and misleading; I should think that there is a legal implication to this sort of denial.” The audit report pivots on the university ignoring the funds were earmarked by being collected for a single purpose and could not be used otherwise. In sworn testimony, Kuntz admitted the funds should have been returned to the students.

The apparent failure of the cover-up was followed by the university’s attack on Professor Mills career. In October 2004, Mills was suspended from teaching and escorted from campus by university police. Kuntz had once again manipulated the university by producing student complaints later found to be baseless. As successive accusations were knocked down, new ones were created.

The see-saw legal battle was initiated in 2005 by Mills suing Western in Federal Court for suspending him without disclosing any charges or holding a hearing to determine the facts. The university was directed by the federal court to hold such a hearing, which the university closed to the public by ejecting this reporter. The need for secrecy ultimately proved to be their downfall because closed hearings are illegal.

Here’s the story from the Whatcom Independent.

The state appeals court nullified the university’s actions and directed them to start over from the beginning.

The university has numerous options, including: appealing to the state Supreme Court to vacate the appeals court ruling; holding another hearing – this time open to public scrutiny; or reaching a settlement with Mills. Currently, they are weighing their next action. A public hearing will very likely dwell on the university’s alleged retaliation for Mills blowing the whistle on the financial irregularities.

Tuesday’s appellate ruling awards attorney’s fees to Mills and that number will probably have five or six digits. The award amount will be set by the court later.

The university’s attempted cover-up will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars when the bill is finally totaled up. It’s long past time to let a little sunshine into those ivy-covered halls.

Related Links:

-> The State Appeals Court decision released on May 26 - a pdf file

Scott Wicklund  //  Thu, May 28, 2009, 10:04 am

The Sam Taylor story in the Herald was disgusting.  Thanks for covering this.

Tip Johnson  //  Fri, May 29, 2009, 11:18 am

Holy cow!  I didn’t read any of this stuff in the hokey, slanderous story by Bellinghams’s knave reporter at the toy newspaper.  No wonder newspapers are going down!

But golly, if University administrators are “diverting”(isn’t that stealing?)money from students in that department, isn’t it fair to assume that other departments have caught on, or been so directed, by now?  That would be many, many more figures than Professor Mill’s settlement. It’s amazing how every petty crook makes the paper, but reporters won’t even look at white shirts and ties. Paul’s reporting once again shows that if justice were ever served in this town, there could be quite a few very nice jobs available!

Michael Lilliquist  //  Sat, May 30, 2009, 1:41 am

My first reaction was, “wow, how unfair and unjust the university has been, to retaliate over financial whistle blowing.”  So I decided to look into it.  What I found is completely different.  Decide for yourself, by reading the court decision.  It appears to deal with harassment and offensive conduct.

+ Link

Anyone remember the Kurosawa film “Rashomon” staring the young Toshiro Mifune?

John Servais  //  Sun, May 31, 2009, 3:59 am

Actually, much of the “harassment and offensive conduct” may not be true and may be lies by Western Washington University administrators.  That is why this issue is important and requires full public process.  The Appeals court simply repeated allegations that came out of the illegal and secret hearing.  A public hearing with evidence, witnesses and testimony may destroy many of these stories.  That is what we need. 

A prodding form of teaching has always been accepted in academia as well as by Americans in general.  The movie “The Paper Chase” should be familiar to some.  For others, the popular TV series ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ with celebrity cook Gordon Ramsay is an extreme example.

I’ve known Perry Mills for 30 years.  He has always had a sharp tongue.  Yet WWU chose to tenure him in 1994 and make him a full professor in 1999.  They knew he used a rough teaching style.

When Perry exposed illegal activities by administrators at Western in 2003, the full force of then President Karen Morse’s administration came down on him.  A cavalier disregard for state laws is now a fact established by the State Court of Appeals.  Others who have followed this issue say that WWU administrators engaged in falsifying charges and creating evidence.  Only a full public hearing can address these issues.

Of interest is how Whatcom Superior Court Judge Mura played along with the University, giving their illegal processes his approval.  The Appeals Court reversed him.  He went over the line by putting into the record unsubstantiated charges against Perry - and these are what the Appeals Court mistakenly copied.  This tale is full of abuses by public officials - all to protect other public officials.

Let us not jump to judgement until a legal public process has taken place - if it ever will.  What this case needs is an investigative writer who can delve into the files and interview the students who are now long gone from WWU.  Perhaps theirs is the testimony that WWU did not want presented in an open hearing.

And it would be nice to investigate the stealing of student fees by administrators at WWU - the illegal activity that Perry originally exposed.  To date the University and our local prosecutor have protected the employees.

Paul deArmond  //  Sun, May 31, 2009, 9:09 pm

Michael got it right—- except there never was a legal and valid finding of fact and some of the incidents cited by the appeals court were shown to never have happened at the university’s own secret hearing.  Get that?  Never happened.

Those false accusations are in the ruling because they were re-introduced in pleadings and argument, not because that’s what the faculty panel found to be the case.

Whatcom Superior Court Judge Steven Mura was so befuddled by the mudslinging that he though he was dealing with a sexual harassment case.  Sex never came up in the charges or at the hearing.  Mura also went through back-flips to deny that the funds diversion constituted embezzlement. 

Mura made plenty of errors, but the one that counted was his refusal to read the plain text of the Administrative Procedures Act.  It says quite clearly that closed hearings are illegal and illegal procedures of any kind are nullified. 

Mura found the procedure illegal, but the results valid.  That’s the nub of the appeal ruling.  Mura misapplied the law and created a wrong.

The appeals court’s remedy was exactly what Mills asked Mura for: set aside the university’s suspension by nullifying Western’s kangaroo court.  In addition, Mills has been awarded his attorney’s fees for repairing Mura’s error.

It’s very Alice-in-Wonderland.  Just pray God it never happens to you.

Jay Taber  //  Mon, Jun 01, 2009, 2:12 pm

Institutions are fairly predictable organizations. When threatened with embarrassment or censure, they often compound small crimes into larger ones.

Now that the tide has turned against the university administrators on the Professor Mills scandal, those small crimes that catalyzed the cover-up now risk a higher level of exposure (and remedy) than they would have had they been addressed appropriately at the outset. As Mills’ attorney refuels on the proceeds from their felonious conduct, the pressure inside the administration on those with knowledge of illicit activity may even generate juicy leaks.

Any perjuries against Mills that were previously contained by the secret hearings will eventually be drawn out by the legal process, where those who were willing to bear false witness under apparent immunity, will find that perceived protection fleeting. Any officials implicated in suborning perjury may soon wish they were elsewhere.

John Servais  //  Wed, Jun 03, 2009, 5:57 pm

Today’s Cascadia Weekly has a more thorough report on this Perry Mills vs Western issue.  Paul de Armond contributed substantially to the article written by Tim Johnson. 

Savaged by Sheep - June 3,  2009 Cascadia Weekly

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