UI seeks court decision on professor’s records

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

By Brandon Macz

The University of Idaho sought a court’s opinion Monday on whether it can release employment records for former assistant professor Ernesto Bustamante, who killed a graduate student and then himself, last week.

Specifically, the UI regents filed a motion for declaratory relief in Latah County 2nd District Court.

The motion was made as a cooperative effort between the university and media outlets the Idaho Statesman and TPC Holdings, which publishes the Lewiston Tribune and Moscow-Pullman Daily News. These and several other media outlets have expressed an interest in employment records regarding Bustamante.

He once had a relationship with UI psychology graduate student Katy Benoit, 22, who was shot to death on the porch of her Lilly Street residence Aug. 22. He took his own life hours later in a room at the nearby University Inn-Best Western.

Idaho Code prevents the university from releasing certain personnel information for former employees — in this case grievances and complaints like the one Benoit filed against Bustamante in June — without the employee’s consent. The university, enlisting TPC Holdings and the Statesman as defendants in the matter, is seeking legal judgment to determine if the Idaho statute applies to employees who are dead and, therefore, cannot give consent.

“This is an unusual request, because it asks the court to resolve an issue before a complaint is ever filed,” said Kent Nelson, UI general counsel, in a statement released Monday. “It’s fitting in that we want to provide a timely accounting for the public within the bounds of the law.”

The university also filed Monday a motion for a speedy hearing to expedite a judge’s decision on the matter.

The issue was raised, according to the motion, when a Tribune reporter filed a public records request with the UI on Wednesday seeking “emails, correspondence and reports” involving UI officials and how they handled the June sexual harassment complaint filed by Benoit against Bustamante. The UI had until Monday to grant or deny the request, and until Sept. 8 to provide the requested information had they approved its release. The university has since asked media agencies to join in its motion for declaratory relief to provide as much disclosure as legally possible.

“It’s a cooperative effort,” said Nathan Alford, Tribune and Daily News publisher. “We’re pleased that the Daily News’ sister paper, the Tribune, provided a public records request that gives the university grounds to pursue this declaratory opinion. The university’s cooperation in clarifying our request for more information is appreciated. They could have waited until we filed a complaint against the university, but instead they chose to cooperate and seek a more timely and efficient opinion from the local court.”

After receiving an opinion from the U.S. Department of Education, the university on Friday released a timeline of its contact with Benoit following her June 12 written complaint. It states she met Bustamante while taking his Psychology 218 course in fall 2010, which developed into a sexual relationship over the course of the semester.

The relationship deteriorated in May following several incidents, Benoit told the UI, where she had been threatened by Bustamante with violence, and he “held a gun to her head and detailed the manner in which he would use it.”

University officials have yet to confirm if he resigned or was terminated effective Aug. 19 following Benoit’s complaint.

Alford said other daily newspapers are working with TPC Holdings and the Statesman with the expectation they might join in the legal action.

“The idea is to share that (court) cost among those with similar interest in obtaining more information for the public,” Alford said. “We’re hopeful there’s something to be learned by sharing more information with the public and the university community about this unimaginable event.”

Brandon Macz can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 238, or by email to bmacz@dnews.com.

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(c)2011 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho)

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