Another former OU attorney joins open records lawsuit against OU Foundation

A preliminary design concept, created on behalf of the OU Foundation, for the new arena and entertainment district proposal.

The OU Foundation’s arena plans may be on hold, but an open records lawsuit against the foundation is pushing forward.

On Monday, Fred Gipson announced that fellow former general counsel for the University of Oklahoma Stanley Ward has joined him in the lawsuit. Like Gipson, he believes the OU Foundation should be treated as a public entity and its records should be subject to the Oklahoma Open Records Act.

“I read the suit in the paper and I discussed it with Fred and I think he’s absolutely right that there is a greater need for more transparency,” Ward said. “We talk about openness in government and we all salute the Open Meetings Act, we all salute the Open Records Act. The problem is in the execution.”

Ward said all too often governmental bodies look to block access to records that should be readily available and transparent.

“If you’re going to have true sunshine in government, in terms of records, and in terms of meetings, you must have complete cooperation from all entities that are subject to the act,” Ward said.

Apart from his lawsuit against the OU Foundation, Gipson said he is still awaiting records he requested from OU, Cleveland County and the city of Norman regarding the arena proposal.

Gipson said it’s been over 60 days since he filed a request with the university seeking information about the arena proposal.

“I’ve gotten no response whatsoever from OU,” he said. “The city has offered up some of the records, but not the emails from City Attorney Jeff Bryant, which is what I really want.”

Gipson said the county’s initial response indicated the county had no records or emails regarding the arena proposal. Gipson said the county has since changed its position.

“[Gipson’s] first request was a little broad and wasn’t specific,” County Commissioner Rod Cleveland said. “But I have put together from his last request, I think it’s his third request now, I’ve complied with the few emails that I have.”

Cleveland said those emails have been sent to the assistant district attorney’s office where an official response is being prepared.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Dillingham did not respond to a request for comment.

City Clerk Brenda Hall said Assistant City Attorney Rick Knighton is in the process of screening the requested emails for any material protected by attorney-client privilege. Hall said the issue hasn’t been a lack of willingness to be transparent, but rather the sheer volume of emails requested.

OU Open Records Officer Sharon Hsieh said her office has just two employees responsible for all of OU’s open records requests. She said the office has been shorthanded recently and the volume of requests is always a challenge.

In 2017, OU processed 1,213 open records requests, 547 requests related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and 34 subpoenas, she said.

Regardless, Gipson said the process is flawed and he believes open records laws need to be strengthened. He said he has reached out to lawmakers and is serious about seeing change enacted.

“I want to make sure there’s a timeline where the recipient of the request will have to act within a period of time or show good cause why they haven’t furnished the records,” he said. “And we want to stiffen the penalties. Also, we want to make sure that the records of any foundation or 501c3 that is formed for the sole purpose of assisting a state agency will be open.”

Ward said he stands with Gipson and he believes Oklahomans deserve to know what’s going on behind closed doors.

Even if the arena deal never makes its way back to the negotiating table, Ward said what he and Gipson are trying to accomplish is necessary.

“The public loses confidence when they think there are secret deals and giveaways taking place,” he said. 

Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.