Past work record of reporter for The Rock River Times at issue
Winnebago County Board member Bob Kinnison (R-10) closed a Web discussion forum last week after a complaint was lodged July 20 to Kinnison by Jeff Havens, staff writer for The Rock River Times. Kinnison is the owner and operator of RockfordLink.com.
Havens alleged a false and disparaging statement concerning his past work record at Rock Valley College (RVC) was posted on the Web site for more than two months.
Havens e-mailed Kinnison July 20, and Kinnison removed the topic from the forum July 21. Kinnison later shut down the entire Web forum late last week.
Web discussion board
Havens alleged that a writer known as Bob posted a statement May 1 on RockfordLink.coms forum that falsely claimed Havens was fired from Rock Valley College for non-performance.
Kinnison said he did not read the post in detail, but scanned the topic, and agreed to remove the postings that referenced Havens. Late July 21, Kinnison posted an apology on the Web site that said: Wed like to apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused Mr. Havens, and regret that this information was allowed to be posted on the board.
Havens said he joined the discussion group late July 20 to respond to the false statement.
An e-mail from Havens shows at least one writer known as Real1ami responded to Havens July 20 post that Havens said described his work record at RVC as outstanding, and Winnebago County court records suggest there was a conspiracy to fire him from RVC.
Kinnison said July 21 that copies of the Web discussion were not available because he deleted the topic from the site.
Kinnison added that he didnt know who posted the false statement about Havens, and denied he was the writer known as Bob. He also said both Havens and the unknown writer violated several rules that govern the discussion board.
Havens responded by saying he violated the discussion boards rule of anonymity to gain credibility when he responded to the writers false statement.
Through a series of e-mails from Havens to RockfordLink.com, Havens said he asked the Web operator to remove the false statement from the discussion forum, and explained why the writers post was incorrect. Havens learned Kinnison owned and operated the Web site by calling the telephone number for RockfordLink.com.
Havens alleged the posting appeared to be an attempt of character assassination by at least the writer, who had no credible evidence to support his claim. In fact, if you review my job performance records at Rock Valley College, I received outstanding reviews. The last one, which was done about two months before I was wrongfully fired in August 2002, I received the highest rating possible in five of six categories, Havens said.
Havens statement for the record
To dispel misinformation about his employment at RVC, Havens said: I want the truth to be known about what happened when I was wrongfully fired from RVC.
It wasnt because there was anything wrong with my job performance. It was because of what I was writing about the problems at the college during the time [Roland] Chip Chapdelaine was president of RVC.
Thats not just me talking. The evidence is in the court record. Chapdelaine took well-documented umbrage with what I was writing about RVC, both in The Rock River Times and Rockford Register Star.
I also expressed my opinion about the problems at RVC on Chris Bowmans show on WNTA [radio] in early June of 2002.
What I basically did was criticize Chapdelaine and the RVC Board of Trustees for their spending on construction projects and their priorities, and asked them to resign. Chapdelaine also knew I was attempting to organize a union for the support staff at the college, after the campus police and faculty had already joined unions.
I was concerned about the financial stability of the college and the direction it was heading under Chapdelaine and that Board, and I felt someone had to say something to avoid a possible disaster. …
He [Chapdelaine] sent me a letter I received on June 7, 2002, that warned me of dire consequences if I used my RVC job title in any opinion pieces. The problem was I had no control over what The Rock River Times or Rockford Register Star used in attributions for guest columns.
The Rock River Times had already published my guest column that asked Chapdelaine to resign on June 5, 2002, and a similar column was scheduled to be printed in the June 9,  issue of the Rockford Register Star.
The same day I received the letter from Chapdelaine, I went to Wally Haas, [editorial page editor] at the Register Star and asked him if he could remove my job title from the guest column. He said he couldnt because it had already went to the printer, and wouldnt because the job title was relevant to the column.
Haas told The Rock River Times, I remember that because I was pre-printing the Sunday section on Friday then, and it was already on the press when he called. The date sounds about right.
Havens continued: The guest columns were titled RVC president should resign. Bowman saw it and asked me to go on the radio, which I did during my lunch hour on June 10, 2002.
The next day, an RVC student I had never met posted a message on the colleges discussion board. He stated that he wanted: to start a petition to fire Jeff Havens. His [Havens] campaign against President Chapdelaine is seriously impeding on my ability to learn in a classroom.
I still have a copy of the e-mail and name of the student.
Fast forward two months, and one of the allegations Chapdelaine leveled against me the night I was fired by the Board of Trustees was that I interfered with unidentified students ability to learn in the classroom, and alleged undue influence on Student Trustee James S. Canfield, Havens said.
Canfield did not return calls for comment on this article.
Havens said he spoke with Canfield earlier this month, when Canfield repeated earlier statements that indicated he was questioned by RVC officials in June 2002, but never said Havens interfered with his ability to learn or exerted undue influence on him, which contradicts what the Board of Trustees officially asserted the night he was fired.
Havens was fired on Aug. 13, 2002. The Rock River Times covered the story in articles that appeared in the Aug. 7-13, 2002, and Aug. 14-21, 2002, issues. Although the Rockford Register Star published the June 9, 2002, guest column that played a role in Havens firing, they did not publish any articles about Havens dismissal.
Havens continued: Fast forward another 18 months, after Chapdelaine was fired in January 2004, and 13 months after we launched an award-winning investigative news series that concerned RVC leadership.
One of the articles in the RVC news series agitated former RVC Board Chairman Don Johannes to the point he filed a lawsuit alleging defamation and a laundry list of other assertions that were eventually thrown out of court, Havens said.
Johannes was RVC Board Chairman the evening Havens was fired. He was defeated for re-election as RVC Trustee in the spring 2004 election.
Havens said: The good news is Johannes revealed in his February 2004 lawsuit that the reasons I was fired that were listed in his court complaint are different than what Chapdelaine and RVCs Human Resources alleged in August 2002.
Johannes confirmed what many had suspected the night I was firedthat I was really fired, not for allegedly interfering with learning or undue influence, but for what I was writing, Havens said.
Johannes amended Feb. 19, 2004, Winnebago County court complaint reads: On information and belief Jeffrey Havens was employed by Rock Valley Community College as a lab assistant for the Biology Department, and was fired in August 2002 for insubordination and for writing the negative articles about the college as summarized above.
Johannes refers in his complaint to the June 5-11, 2002, issue of The Rock River Times
in which Havens asked for Chapdelaines resignation. He also referred to the July 17-23, 2002, issue of The Rock River Times in which Havens asked for the Board of Trustees resignation, which included Johannes.
In both the guest columns, The Rock River Times elected to identify Havens as an employee of the college, which Johannes alleged was insubordinate to Chapdelaines June 6, 2002, directive to not use his job title in opinion pieces.
Havens added Johannes incorrectly identified him as lab assistant for the Biology Department. He was actually the manager of the physical science laboratories, a position he held from June 2000 to August 2002.
The Rock River Times offered Havens a job as a reporter after his dismissal. He began in late September 2002.
Asked why he never filed suit against the college, Chapdelaine and Johannes, Havens said: I retained a Springfield lawyer who was ready to file a federal lawsuit on First Amendment grounds. However, I had to make a choice between covering the mismanagement at the college or filing a lawsuit.
I asked an ethics professor from Southern Illinois University in early January 2003 whether it was ethical for me to cover the RVC story since I used to work there, and was fired under unusual circumstances. He responded by saying no one else would cover the story, and who better to expose what we suspected?
By the time the series was completed, Johannes lawsuit was thrown out of court and finalized in July 2004, and after discussions with another attorney, I was informed the statute of limitations elapsed, Havens said.
News series and award
The RVC series was launched Jan. 23, 2003. Havens was denounced by critics as having an ax to grind, and for biased reporting. During the series, Havens exposed perhaps what may have been the turning point in what was Chapdelaines tumultuous tenure at RVC from 1997 to 2004.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Havens discovered that in 1997, Chapdelaine charged $770 to his former colleges credit card for three round-trip airline tickets from Philadelphia to OHare Airport at the same time he was being considered for his RVC position. RVC also issued Chapdelaine two checks during the same period totaling $2,107.53 for his recruitment to RVC.
Documents show Chapdelaine charged Cumberland County College for two July 17, 1997, airline tickets to OHare, the day after he secured the RVC presidency on July 16, 1997. Chapdelaine charged $612 to Cumberland County College for tickets and flight insurance for himself and his wife on July 17, 1997.
In October 2004, the Illinois Press Association awarded Havens and The Rock River Times second place for outstanding news series reporting in the Best of the Press contest. Havens received the award in the category for weekly newspapers with a publication of more than 10,000 newspapers. The series was titled Stewardship in Question: A series examining RVC leadership.
In addition to the airline flight charges, the board fired Chapdelaine on Jan. 13, 2004, after five consecutive and unprecedented years of deficit spending that totaled $7.3 million; a downgrade of the colleges recognition status by the colleges governing agency, the Illinois Community College Board; No Confidence votes by all three employee groups that totaled 204-28; legal costs that climbed each year during Chapdelaines tenure from about $48,000 in 1998 to about $460,000 in 2003; alleged illegal use of taxpayer funds for two political contributions, which were allegedly reimbursed after inquiries were made by Havens about the contributions; and at least $9.6 million in construction cost overruns.
Havens concluded: I hope this sets the record straight. I still think RVC should give me my job back with pay from the day I was wrongfully canned. The last time I interacted with RVC in August 2004, they said I was not eligible to be rehired, despite what Johannes admitted in the court case.
Chapdelaine landed a job last summer in Cleveland as president of Cuyahoga Community Colleges Eastern Campus. According to the The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Chapdelaine took about an $11,000 pay cut to take the position, which pays $137,000 per year.
Editorial note: I am really surprised that Rock Valley College, which I used to be proud to call my alma mater, has not rehired Jeff Havens. They have failed to recognize his courage, commitment to the students, his colleagues and the college. What an ethical black eye.
Single-handedly, he saved RVC from who knows how many more years of extreme mismanagement that threatened the very financial and academic credibility of RVC. He stopped the waste of taxpayer dollars, at least for a little while.
Very sadly, the very staff and faculty he stood up for has let him down. A petition should be circulated demanding his reinstatement and be presented to the administration and board still apparently infested with the past administrations arrogance that bred failure to admit mistakes and the according downfalls.
When I hear people say, Chip Chapdelaine had vision, I can only shake my head in sorrow if they think that kind of record is vision. Havens really had and has real vision and he acted correctly, at great personal cost.
I offered him a job because he couldnt find one. I said, repeating an old axiom, Write what you know. He should really be protected under the Federal Whistle-Blowers Act because he cant find a job in his field now. He has been unofficially blacklisted because in todays corporate ethical climate who wants to hire a someone with known ethical standards? The RVC firing continues to haunt Havens who did the right thing.
Little do those employers know what they are missing. He makes such a good investigative journalist because he works. He researches tirelessly. He has transferred his scientific method to journalism, and we are more accurate and in-depth because of his diligence.
Unfortunately for this paper, Havens first love and passion is still science, and I am sure we will lose him to that commitment. I cant blame him because I cant even match his old RVC salary and benefits. He deserves a better standard of living; and despite the loss to this paper, Ill be happy when he gets a better one. I just wish he received better from his peers in his field, but they are afraid.
They are afraid of those bent on retribution, of those who snarl at the truth, of those who strike low blowsthat those will lash out at them, like those who continue to rail at the courage of Jeff Havens. Havens is a Profile in Courage; and when some others look at their profile in the mirror, they madly or sadly see much less.
So as Havens faces his uncertain future, instances like the one in this article will lamely appear and disappear. Jeff Havens has his character, his honor; some others have much less.
From the July 27-Aug. 2, 2005, issue