The Mystery of SUNYAB
by Buck Quigley
Our intrepid gumshoe attempts to dicover who pays UB’s Albany lobbyists, and to whom UB’s foundations are responsible
I was sitting around the office writing up a fluff piece about a touring band when a cryptic email arrived in my inbox. The message contained no text—just a link to a story in the Buffalo News. When I clicked on the link, I saw the headline to a story by Tom Precious that read: “UB leads in lobbyist spending.”
It raised a couple eyebrows around town for a day or two. After all, why would any state college or university be in the business of paying people to influence state politicians? The article went on to indicate that “the SUNY campuses that hire lobbyists—except Purchase—pay them using only ‘nonstate resources,’” according to SUNY spokesman David Henahan. In the case of UB, the article said it meant funding from its nonprofit foundation.
But did you know that there isn’t just one UB Foundation? In fact there are seven, unless I’ve missed some. There’s the University at Buffalo Foundation, Inc. (formed 1962), UBF Corporation (formed 1978), UB Foundation Activities, Inc. (formed 1990), UBF Faculty-Student Housing Corp. (formed 1990), UB Foundation Services, Inc. (formed 1988), and my favorite one to say because it feels like swearing— FNUB, Inc. (formed 1997). There’s also the University at Buffalo Foundation Incubator, Inc., but I’m not sure when it was formed because that info wasn’t on the tax form I looked at.
A little while back I reported about all the money UB Foundation Activities, Inc. paid people like university president John Simpson ($489,306 in 2007), on top of his state salary which was roughly half that. The information is public, and anyone can get a copy of the 990s by visiting guidestar.org. One year they listed 73 people being paid over $50,000 by the same foundation, but the names are not listed. I wanted to find out who else was on the payroll, so I called UB spokesperson John DellaContrada and asked him.
He told me to put my question in the form of an email, so I did. I received a reply almost two weeks later from UB Records Officer James Jarvis, which read: “The University at Buffalo does not hold or file any of the requested records. Those records, to the extent they exist, are maintained by the University at Buffalo Foundation, a private, non-profit educational corporation. The Foundation is independent of the State and of SUNY in the exercise of its fiduciary responsibilities.”
I sent that reply off to Robert J. Freeman, the Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government with the Department of State in Albany, seeking his opinion. He replied in about half an hour:
Attached is an opinion that includes reference to the language of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and judicial precedent indicating that the records of a foundation associated with a public college or university fall within the scope of that law. It is my view that such a foundation is an “agency” subject to FOIL or that, in the alternative, when records of a foundation are maintained for a public college or university, they would constitute college or university records, which, for that reason alone, would bring them within the scope of rights of access conferred by FOIL [see especially definition of “record” appearing in §86(4) of FOIL].
In essence, the attached opinions concluded that such foundations are inextricably linked to the state entities they support. In fact, the foundations themselves could not exist were it not for the existence of, in this case, UB. Therefore, they need to open up.
When I shared Freeman’s opinion with DellaContrada and Jarvis, they referred me to Edward Schneider, who’s named as the principal officer of all of UB’s foundations. So I sent off a FOIL request to Schneider, copying DellaContrada and Jarvis. I heard nothing for nearly two weeks. I called Schneider. He told me that he never got the email.
At that point we were already past the deadline when an entity is supposed to at least acknowledge your FOIL request, but who’s counting? So I sent it to him again. I wanted a list of all the records that are kept by the foundation, access to all their tax forms, and a full list of all their employees, with salaries. Information that is public for all state employees.
Sensing my frustration, Schneider agreed to share 2008 990s, which aren’t available on Guidestar yet. He dug in his heels about the rest of my request, however. I called him back this week and he says they have lawyers discussing it.
One thing I noticed in looking at the various 990s filed by the various foundations was the was the fact that they all responded “no” when asked, “Did the organization engage in lobbying activities?” How could that be, when the SUNY spokesman in the News article said the foundations funded the lobbying? If you fund something, aren’t you somehow “engaged”? A guy hires a hit-man, is he not kind of involved in the murder?
Asked about this, Schneider said, “We’re not hiring any lobbyists. If the university happens to be hiring lobbyists, they’re responsible for managing that relationship. It would be their responsibility in accounting to all the authorities.”
I reminded him of the News article and he said, “I guess it gets down to how one defines the university. Do you count us as part of the university?”
I told him it seemed like an elaborate maze—at which he laughed.
I pointed out that the foundations are all located in the Center for Tomorrow on the UB North Campus. They use the university Web sites. And, at least initially, I was directed to a university spokesperson as the spokesperson for the foundations. There is more overlap between UB and its foundations than there is at UC Stanislaus—where a court case is playing out in California to determine the public nature of that school’s foundation.
Judging by the tone of recent conversations, it appears we could be heading for a day in court here, too.
Transparency is paramount when we’re talking about public entities. The University at Buffalo was a private school from 1846 until 1962, when it joined the State University of New York, which is the largest system of colleges and universities on the planet. SUNY was established in 1948 based on recommendations of the Temporary Commission on the Need for a State University, which recognized, at the end of World War II, the importance of providing affordable college education to citizens of New York. It was a remarkably progressive idea that flew in the face of old private colleges that were usually the domain of the privileged class. It helped democratize learning, and millions upon millions have benefited from it.
Nowadays you don’t hear UB referred to as a place for a New Yorker to get a quality, affordable education as often as you hear it described as an “economic driver” for the struggling region. A couple of the major points of last year’s unsuccessful UB 2020 bills in the state legislature, as well as the current PHEEIA legislation for which UB is lobbying so hard, would enable the separate colleges and universities to set their own tuition and pave the way for public/private partnerships to develop real estate and create other businesses. It seems like a good time to question whether SUNY is going to remain true to its original mandate, or morph into a state entity that operates in shadows, beyond the reach of the public it was created to serve.blog comments powered by Disqus
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