The quest to uncover what exactly the “moral turpitude” of former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze consisted of continues, and that means the university is responding to a lot of public-records requests, including some from Deadspin. This started two weeks ago, when university leaders said that a review of Freeze’s phone records showed a “pattern of conduct that is not consistent with our expectations.” The announcement came soon after reports that one selection of records showed a one-minute call to an escort service. It’s no surprise that requests for phone records followed.
Pat Forde over at Yahoo reported Monday that Freeze’s work cell phone wasn’t paid for by the university, but was instead covered by an outside foundation. In a response to a Deadspin public-records request, received yesterday, Ole Miss confirmed this, adding a bizarre explanation about why private money, and not not public money, paid for a public employee’s work phone. From Ole Miss:
The Ole Miss Athletics Foundation is a nonprofit corporation, separate from the university, that exists to raise shitloads of money to kick back to sports. (The foundation resides at the URL GiveToAthletics.com, and the staff includes athletics director Ross Bjork.) Similar foundations exist at universities all over the country. They serve as a convenient way to raise money, pay bills, and turn presumably public records private.
What’s truly amazing, though, is how Ole Miss has taken what at least sounds like a public-records dodge—a private corporation subsidizing a benefit of public employment—and tried to turn it into a positive. This isn’t them basically giving a football head coach a burner phone, they say, but part of a measure to “ensure compliance with both state laws regarding cell phones and NCAA rules.”
This dovetails with the bizarre redactions that Freeze said he was allowed to make to his phone records. When the news broke about the escort service call, Freeze tried to play it down by telling Yahoo that the call must not have been heinous because he had been allowed to redact out anything personal from the records. That detail, echoed by Bjork, didn’t make much sense to me at the time. A few days after the initial press conference, the Student Press Law Center ran a blog outlining how there wasn’t any clear exemption to be found in Mississippi law allowing these redactions.
There is no statutory exemption for “personal information” in Mississippi law. The statute contains some narrowly targeted exclusions that allow for withholding especially sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, but nothing that categorically places “personal” information off-limits.
None of this matters if that personal information is in a record that’s been removed from the public record entirely via a nifty financial trick.
The letter goes on to say that the estimated cost of producing Freeze’s cell phone records will be $20,000 but that because of the many requests, they are instead “working to develop a protocol” to redact out all the numbers they need to and eventually will provide them free of cost. Whatever they do provide, though, may well be incomplete.
The full letter is below.