CLARKSBURG – Former West Virginia University business school dean Stephen Sears overcame the university's bid to wrap secrecy around its investigation of a degree the school awarded to Heather Bresch, daughter of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.
On Sept. 2, Sears proposed an order that would preserve the privacy of student information but not of an academic integrity committee that investigated the degree.
Sears's lawyer, John Tinney of Charleston, wrote that he proposed the order with the agreement of the university's Board of Governors.
The order would allow the university to mark documents confidential only under the national Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
"The academic integrity materials are not entitled to any protection from production or disclosure," Tinney wrote. "The only information protected by FERPA is a student's name, social security number, and grades or other information that when viewed together make it possible to identify the student.
"But the presence of FERPA protected information in a document does not protect the entire document from discovery, and FERPA's statutory language permits disclosure of educational records to comply with a judicial order."
Sears and former business school associate dean Cyril Logar sued the Board of Governors, former president Michael Garrison, former interim president Peter McGrath, and five others last year.
Sears and Logar claimed the university damaged their reputations and deprived them of benefits and privileges.
They claimed conflicts of interest corrupted an investigation into charges that the business school awarded Bresch a degree she hadn't earned. They claimed they acted on advice of former university counsel Alex Macia.
Former provost Gerald Lang filed a similar suit in Monongalia County, and Circuit Judge Susan Tucker ordered the university to stop the investigation.
Lang dropped his suit in July after the Board of Governors agreed to file no charges against him, and Tucker vacated the order blocking the investigation.
The board announced the investigation would resume, but Sears and Logar objected.
On July 28, Stamp asked Sears, Logar and the board for affidavits to help him decide whether a two year statute of limitations ran out on the claims.
Affidavits and exhibits arrived on Aug. 10, and Stamp posted them on the public docket.
On Aug. 11, the board moved to seal the exhibits.
"The academic integrity proceedings at issue in this action have not come to any final resolution," wrote Wendy Adkins, of Jackson Kelly in Morgantown. "Release of information concerning the academic integrity materials in this lawsuit may compromise the numerous protections provided by the academic integrity policy for a confidential and neutral process to not only plaintiffs, but also others subject to the same academic integrity proceedings but are not parties to this suit."
Logar's lawyer, Robert Ridge of Pittsburgh, opposed sealing on Aug. 15.
"This lawsuit involves allegations of constitutional violations against a public university and some of that university's current or former employees," he wrote. "The university used public funds to carry out the investigations and proceedings that are at issue in this case."
He wrote that the university posted most of the information on its web page, leaving no privacy interests to protect.
"Plaintiffs have already suffered harm as a result of the publicity surrounding the multiple investigations that led to this lawsuit," he wrote.
Stamp ruled that if the parties couldn't agree on a protective order by Sept. 2, he would consider separate proposals.
They reached agreement at his deadline, with Sears and Logar prevailing on public access to records of the investigation.
Logar remains at the university, but not as associate dean.
Sears departed, and court records locate him in Texas.