Chapdelaine’s response called ‘ludicrous’ by N.J. state official

Rock Valley College (RVC) President Roland Chapdelaine issued a response to this paper’s first article in the series examining RVC leadership. In his Jan. 29 response on RVC’s e-mail system and computer discussion board, EdNet, Chapdelaine explained his use of taxpayer money for two known $50 donations to State Rep. Dave Winters (R-69).

Chapdelaine’s response read, “In New Jersey, where I come from, it is permissible to make such donations.” Chapdelaine was president of Cumberland County (community) College in Vineland, N.J., from 1989 to 1997.

After explaining Chapdelaine’s ties with New Jersey and reading Chapdelaine’s exact words to John Hagerty, communications director for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, Hagerty said, “Any individual who works for or represents a publicly funded entity that receives public dollars, the individual cannot, and is prohibited by law from contributing to a partisan political candidate,” with state funds.

Hagerty added that he took offense to Chapdelaine “maligning” the state of New Jersey and called Chapdelaine’s statement “ludicrous” that such a practice would be allowed in his state. Before making the statement, Hagerty consulted with one of the division’s attorneys.

Chapdelaine’s posted message regarding the contributions read: “Regarding political donations using taxpayer funds and why it took so long to reimburse the college for such. The donations to Rep. Dave Winters’ campaign were an honest mistake. In New Jersey, where I come from, it is permissible to make such donations. In the case of the first donation to Rep. Winters’ campaign, it wasn’t until after a routine review of the checks with our attorney that I discovered it was not appropriate.”

Sources dispute Chapdelaine’s claim that the review of the checks was “routine.” The sources said the review was prompted by this paper’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Chapdelaine’s contract and expense accounts on Oct. 14, 2002, an assertion that appears to be supported by receipt documents submitted to the Times by RVC.

Unaccounted for in that original request are at least 42 checks, 39 credit card statements and Chapdelaine’s current contract that was agreed upon last June by the RVC board of trustees.

Chapdelaine’s response continued: “I immediately wrote a personal check reimbursing the college for the donation. On the second occasion, there was a deadline involved, and I did not have my personal checkbook with me, so I used a college checkbook. I reimbursed the college when the statement arrived, which is usually four to six weeks afterward.”

This series’ first article also indicated that state board of elections records show that on Sept. 9, 2002, Chapdelaine made a $300 contribution to Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn’s (R) campaign. It is not known whether taxpayer funds were used for this contribution because no checks beyond May 2002 were submitted to the Times as asked for in the FOIA. However, Chapdelaine’s response does not address this question.

Media guidelines

Last week, RVC officials implemented new “guidelines” to handle media inquiries.

The guidelines request that all media make appointments to see staff and concludes, “Telephone, mail, facsimile and e-mail communications with our department will receive a response commensurate with staff time and availability.”

In addition, Suzanne Berger, RVC’s vice president of institutional advancement and executive vice president of the RVC Foundation, said Jan. 30 that the college wanted all questions in writing and added, “We will take the questions under consideration and decide whether or not we will respond to them.”

On Feb, 4, RVC’s attorney Charles P. Kostantacos’ office hand delivered a letter to this paper making the same claims of our requests being “burdensome” to RVC staff, and added, “Until further notice, Rock Valley College requests that you and your staff submit any and all requests, including FOIA, directly to my office. We will make every effort to provide responses in accordance with applicable case law and statutes. This approach is intended to enable the College to submit an appropriate response without compromising the ability of our staff to fulfill other duties.”

The Rock River Times’ Editor and Publisher Frank Schier said, “We are being stonewalled by the administration of RVC. The tactics are obvious. They will not grant interviews; instead, all questions must be submitted in writing, then they do not respond, unless it’s through an attorney. What do they have to hide? RVC and its attorney only partially responded to our Freedom of Information Act request, violating the statute’s time requirements. That FOIA request dates back to October of last year, pertaining to Dr. Chapdelaine’s salary and benefits. It has have not been fully answered in four months. Dr. Chapdelaine is not acting as an accessible, open public official. The public’s right to know is being violated by the representatives of a taxpayer-supported, public body.”

The Times sent RVC a list of questions on Jan. 24, one of which reads, “Please explain why Stenstrom was awarded the construction manager position for the Support Services [SSB] construction.” The Times has not received an answer to that question and six of the seven others, as of publication. Another question that was submitted Jan. 24 concerned last week’s article. The unanswered question asked, “Please explain the increase in number of upper-level administrators from 1997 to present.”

The college’s response to the Jan. 24 message was Chapdelaine was out of town and that he would give the Times a response later that week. The response was posted on the college’s e-mail system and computer discussion board.

Sources said that when the administration posted the response Jan. 29 at 1:33 p.m., the file was so large (5.6 megabytes) that it took as long as 15 minutes to open. Once opened, the message was impossible to read because the text was too small, sources said.

Chapdelaine’s message addressed issues regarding the first in this series that examined his expense account.

Earlier on Jan. 29, the Times received a message from the college that indicated that the RVC board of trustees would not respond to “allegations printed in the Rock River Times … because of a pending grievance.”

About two hours later, the Times posted the following on its Web site, faxed the message to RVC and hand-delivered it in response to the board: “As of this date Jan. 29, 2003, I am formally dropping my grievances. Signed, Jeff Havens.”

When RVC board member Ann Dempsey was contacted Jan. 30 and informed of the dropped grievances, Dempsey said she was sorry she couldn’t comment and referred all questions to Chris Johnson, RVC Board chairman and Winnebago County Board member (R-4).

On Jan. 31, the Times left Johnson a message asking him to explain the board’s spokesperson policy. Johnson faxed a reply that read, “The RVC Board spokesperson is policy by consensus.”

When the Times contacted Johnson Feb. 3 to ask questions regarding an upcoming article, Johnson answered a few questions before stopping and asked that all other questions be put in writing. Johnson said he wanted the questions in writing for future reference and to avoid having his words taken out of context, which he alleged occurred in the series’ first article. The Rock River Times stands by the context of those quotes.

Chapdelaine’s supporters said that new media guidelines and the board’s spokesperson policy is an efficient way to serve the community and effectively use college resources. Critics said the college is trying to control the flow of information.

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that Jeff Havens was an employee at Rock Valley College (RVC) from 2000 to 2002 before he was fired by the board of trustees after publicly criticizing the president and the board of trustees and calling for their resignations. Havens also was one of the leaders of a union organizing effort for staff at the college.

RVC’s administration alleges Havens interfered with students’ ability to learn and exercised undue influence on a student trustee.

None of the information included in this article, or the series, was obtained while Havens was an employee of the college.

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