D. J. Bernstein
What it's like to work at UIC

The Statement of Economic Interests

Thursday 24 March 2005

It's not every day that a tenured faculty member receives a letter from his university threatening him with being fired.

I find, in my mailbox at home, a letter dated 11 March 2005 from Donna McNeely, the University Ethics Officer. This letter says

I also find a separate envelope from the Office of the Secretary of State with the promised Statement of Economic Interests, including a note saying that I'm required to send it to the Office of the Secretary of State.

(Over the subsequent week I learn that many UIC faculty members have received only one of these two letters, thanks to some mailing screwups. Fortunately, I've received both of them, so I have a head start on figuring out what's going on.)

I glance at the form and see that it will be a royal pain to fill out. This is the sort of list published by candidates for political office, far more invasive than the standard statement regarding conflicts of interest.

I find the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act online. The state passed this law many years earlier. The law has a list of people required to fill out the form: ``persons holding an elected office in the Executive Branch of this State''; state employees who ``are, or function as, the head of a department, commission, board, division, bureau, authority or other administrative unit within the government of this State''; and various other categories. You can read the list for yourself: start from http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs2.asp?ChapterID=2, click on 5 ILCS 420, click on Article 4a, and skim through part (f).

I also notice that the Statements of Economic Interest are published online. I peek at some of last year's forms. One well-paid UIC administrator claims that he has no economic interests; presumably he never bothered reading the instructions, he incorrectly assumed that the Statement of Economic Interest is just like the standard conflict-of-interest statement, and he ended up filing a false form, punishable by a $1000 fine and a year in jail. Some other state employees have more interesting forms. There's a strange thrill from invading other people's privacy. Identity thieves must love this database.

Anyway, I'm not in any of the categories listed in the law. Obviously someone screwed up. I figure that this is the department's fault; after all, the University Ethics Officer's letter says that I was named by my department.

So I send email to the University Ethics Officer:

Today I received a letter dated 11 March 2005 indicating that my department head had identified me as someone required to file a Statement of Economic Interests.

My impression is that, in fact, I am not required to file any such statement. I've read Public Act 88-187 Section 4A-101(f); as far as I can tell, I don't meet any of its criteria.

Please send me prompt email confirming that the initial identification was erroneous, and that I am not required to file any such statement.

The University Ethics Officer responds: ``The Grants and Contracts Office has identified you as being a PI or co-PI on a grant. As a result, you are required to complete a Statement of Economic Interests form.''

I read the original letter more carefully. There's a list of the people targeted by the University Ethics Officer---and PIs are included: ``Dean, Director, or Department Head or similar budgetary authority; maintain PCard authorization level of $5000 or more; maintain payables spending authorization; Principal Investigator (PI) or a Co-PI; and/or supervise 20 or more employees.''

But that's not the list in the law! The law does list ``head of a department.'' The law does list people with ``direct responsibility'' for purchases ``in the amount of $5000 or more.'' The law does list people who ``have supervisory responsibility for 20 or more employees of the State.'' The law does not list principal investigators.

I send email to the University Ethics Officer informing her that the law doesn't list PIs and asking why she included PIs.

She responds: ``PI's are considered to have budgetary authority in the amount of their grant and are hence included as are others with budgetary authority.''

That wasn't a smart thing to say. I've spent a huge amount of time fighting the university's mismanagement of the grants that are supposed to be supporting my research. The university won't even show me the grant accounts. My computer purchases have been effectively paralyzed for years. The notion that I have ``budgetary authority'' over these grants is not just factually incorrect but downright offensive.

I send email to the University Ethics Officer:

UIC won't even let me _see_ my grant budgets despite repeated written requests, so it's hard to imagine how I can be considered to have budgetary authority, never mind the question of how this relates to the criteria stated in Public Act 88-187 Section 4A-101(f).

Please tell me who decided to demand these statements from grant PIs.

She responds: ``PI's are included as required filers based on an interpretation by University Counsel.'' So now she's blaming the university lawyers rather than the department.

Friday 25 March 2005

I send email asking the University Ethics Officer for a copy of the memo from the university lawyers.

She responds: ``I do not have such documentation as I am new to the position and was left with the interpretation in only note form from the prior Ethics Officer.''

At this point I have a new theory: Ms. McNeely, who has been University Ethics Officer for only a few months, misunderstood the previous ethics officer's summary of what the lawyers had said. This also explains the sudden policy change from previous years to this year. So I'm optimistic that the mistake can be fixed within UIC. But long experience teaches me not to rely on optimism, so I send web mail to the Office of the Secretary of State asking them what happens if the error isn't corrected by UIC.

The Office of the Secretary of State responds that the Ethics Officer ``determines by looking at the Illinois compiled statutes who is required to file the economic interest statements'' and that the only way to remove anyone from the list is to have a written correction from the Ethics Officer.

I send email to the Office of the Secretary of State:

You say that the University Ethics Officer determines ``by looking at the Illinois compiled statutes'' who is required to file the form. But the unfortunate fact is that the University Ethics Officer did _not_ follow the law in this case. In fact, she has already admitted by email that what she followed was a ``note'' from the ``prior Ethics Officer.''
I ask what will happen if (1) the Ethics Officer fails to promptly correct the mistake but (2) the victim directly notifies the Office of the Secretary of State of the mistake.

The Office of the Secretary of State responds, giving their lawyer's phone number. But long experience also teaches me not to rely on unrecorded discussions with lawyers, so I ask for the lawyer's email address, which I receive. I send email to the lawyer, asking the same questions.

In the meantime, I send email to the previous ethics officer asking for a copy of what the lawyers actually said, and email to the university lawyers asking them whether it's true that they had something to do with the University Ethics Officer's action.

During the day I learn from my colleagues that the University Ethics Officer has targeted other PIs at UIC, both inside and outside my department.

Saturday 26 March 2005

I send email to the Illinois Executive Inspector General:
There appears to be a serious procedural flaw in the state procedures for collecting Statements of Economic Interest. Specifically, ethics officers have unfettered power to force employees to submit Statements of Economic Interest, even when the employees are not required by law to submit those statements. The Office of the Secretary of State blindly trusts the lists of names supplied by ethics officers.
I explain that this power is being abused by the University of Illinois Ethics Officer. I ask for comments.

In the meantime, I receive email from the department head saying that none of this is his fault. It's reasonably clear at this point that the University Ethics Officer's original ``identified by your department'' statement was false. (Despite being asked about precisely this issue on 24 March, the University Ethics Officer never issues an apology for, or even a correction to, her false statement.)

Monday 28 March 2005

I receive email from the UIC lawyer: ``To my knowledge, the legal office has not had any involvement in determining who received these statements this year. This state law has been in effect for a long time. I am trying to track down what occurred.''

This supports the theory that the new University Ethics Officer is simply confused. At this point I'm quite optimistic that the problem will be easy to fix. I send email to the lawyer explaining three reasons that PIs clearly don't have ``direct authority'' over $5000 state contracts; I ask the lawyer to generate a prompt statement to the University Ethics Officer stating the same conclusion.

Tuesday 29 March 2005

The previous ethics officer says that he gave all his records to the new ethics officer.

The University Ethics Officer claimed that ``PI's are included as required filers based on an interpretation by University Counsel.'' So why doesn't the University Ethics Officer have a memo from University Counsel?

Wednesday 30 March 2005

I send email to the University Ethics Officer asking for a copy of the ``note from the prior Ethics Officer'' that she does claim to have seen.

(The University Ethics Officer never responds. The reader is forced to wonder which of the University Ethics Officer's statements are true and which ones are false.)

Thursday 31 March 2005

To my surprise, the UIC lawyer attempts to retroactively justify the University Ethics Officer's action.

Suddenly the situation is completely different. This isn't a confused new University Ethics Officer misunderstanding a secret note. This is a UIC lawyer directly stating the wacky notion that PIs are supposed to file Statements of Economic Interest.

Here's the lawyer's attempted justification:

While being a PI is not a triggering event in and of itself, the role and activities of a PI trigger the application of the statute in most cases. The operative language under 5 ILCS 420/4A-101(f)(2) is "direct responsibility for the formulation, negotiation,...of contracts entered into by the State in the amount of $5000 or more;." A PI prepares or "formulates" the proposal and the budget which are submitted to the granting agency or entity and which form the terms of the agreement between the parties, i.e., the State (in this case, the university) and the granting party. If the grant(s) is in excess of $5000, then the contract created by submission of the proposal and acceptance by the granting entity meets the minimum requirements of the statute.

There are several obvious factual and legal errors here. The largest error from my perspective is the notion that direct responsibility for formulating contracts doesn't lie with the Office of Research Services deciding what proposals to submit to outside agencies, but with the faculty making requests to the Office of Research Services. The largest error from a legislative perspective is the notion that an ethics law covering ``contracts entered into by the State in the amount of $5000 or more'' includes, for example, a $100000 grant to the state. One of my department colleagues later puts it this way: ``Is negative $100000 larger than $5000?''

I send email asking some of the most obvious questions about the lawyer's position.

Friday 1 April 2005

The UIC lawyer sends me a short message whose only useful content is that she'll be out of the country next week.

Saturday 2 April 2005

I learn from my colleagues that the University Ethics Officer is also targeting PIs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and presumably also at UIS.

As far as I know, Northern Illinois University and other state universities aren't harassing their PIs. The University of Illinois lawyers seem to be alone in their wacky interpretation of the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act.

I send email to the UIUC lawyer, asking some of the most obvious questions and highlighting the inconsistency between the amount of power that they claim PIs have and the amount of power that PIs actually have.

Sunday 3 April 2005

I write a letter to the Office of the Secretary of State formally notifying them that I am not in any of the categories listed in 5 ILCS 420 Sec. 4a-101. I ask them to confirm that they will accept that letter in lieu of the Statement of Economic Interests.

Friday 8 April 2005

Still no response from the university lawyers.

Tuesday 12 April 2005

I send email to my dean asking him to kick the university lawyers.

Wednesday 13 April 2005

I learn that, in response to other faculty members complaining about the Statement of Economic Interests, the University Ethics Officer has been mechanically repeating the paragraph from the university lawyers. In other words, even though the university lawyers aren't willing to say anything in defense of their wacky interpretation of the law, that interpretation has become university policy.

I send email to the Office of the Secretary of State asking them to confirm receipt of my letter from last week. They confirm receipt but don't say whether they'll accept the letter in lieu of the Statement of Economic Interests.

Thursday 14 April 2005

The Office of the Secretary of State sends me email saying that I need to contact their lawyer. I send email with a copy of the message I sent to their lawyer three weeks earlier. I say that I'm still waiting for a response.

Friday 15 April 2005

Still no response from the university lawyers; and no response from the dean.

Sunday 17 April 2005

I send another message to the dean. Perhaps he'll stop daydreaming when he sees big words like ``tenure'' and ``extortion'' and ``lawsuit.'' I also send another message to the Office of the Secretary of State.

Monday 18 April 2005

I receive a confirmation of receipt from the Office of the Secretary of State, and finally a response from their lawyer, explicitly refusing to accept my letter in lieu of the Statement of Economic Interests.

The lawyer comments at one point that, if the Office of the Secretary of State accepted such letters, ``there would be little reason for having the disclosure law in the first place.'' I resist the temptation to point out that they're mindlessly accepting blank Statements of Economic Interest that disclose even less information than my letter.

I send email in response, asking once again whether there's any dispute-resolution mechanism short of the courts.

I also send a formal complaint to the Illinois Executive Inspector General.

Tuesday 19 April 2005

The lawyer at the Office of the Secretary of State responds, again saying that the Office of the Secretary of State can't resolve disputes. I send email pointing out that the statute doesn't say what the lawyer claims it says, and asking for a copy of the office's procedures.

Meanwhile, I finally hear back from the Illinois Executive Inspector General, who says she's forwarding my complaint to the Inspector General for the Governor.

Thursday 21 April 2005

The dean finally responds, indicating that after nine days he still hasn't kicked the lawyers. The lawyers have now been ignoring my questions for three weeks.

Wednesday 27 April 2005

It has been a week since I asked the Office of the Secretary of State to fax me a copy of their procedures. I have received nothing. I send email demanding an answer.

Friday 29 April 2005

I receive two letters from the Office of the Secretary of State. The interesting one, postmarked 21 April, has various information on the office's procedures. The uninteresting one, postmarked 18 April, is another copy of the blank Statement of Economic Interests for me to fill out, along with another form letter threatening me with being fired.

Saturday 30 April 2005

I send email asking for more information on the procedures at the Office of the Secretary of State.

Monday 2 May 2005

The lawyer at the Office of the Secretary of State responds, providing a little more information. I send email asking further questions.

Sunday 8 May 2005

No response from the Office of the Secretary of State. No response from the university lawyers for five weeks now.

I file a formal complaint with the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission.

I also send web mail to the Office of the Attorney General (specifically the deputy attorney general who I believe is in charge of handling Statements of Economic Interest) asking for more information about the hidden procedures at the Office of the Secretary of State.