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Court: University foundation exempt from open-records laws

The Associated Press//December 14, 2019

Court: University foundation exempt from open-records laws

The Associated Press//December 14, 2019//

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FALLS CHURCH (AP) The fundraising foundation for Virginia’s largest university is exempt from public-records laws, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The unanimous ruling is a defeat to a group of George Mason University students who sought records outlining the relationship between the university and a network of conservative donors who have contributed millions of dollars to the school annually.

A group called Transparent GMU filed the lawsuit, arguing that the George Mason University Foundation is the “alter ego” of the university and should be subject to public-records laws just like the university.

The school argued that the entities are separate and that state law exempts foundations from Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

The court’s unanimous, Dec. 12 ruling upholds an earlier decision from Fairfax County Circuit Judge John M. Tran.

Evan Johns, a lawyer for Transparent GMU, said the ruling is disappointing and leaves no avenue for appeal.

Mason’s interim president, Anne Holton, said in a statement that the ruling will help private foundations continue their support for public universities.

She also complimented the students who filed the suit, saying they “care deeply about transparency, as does the university. Though we disagreed on the case, the university believes that their input and advocacy played an important role in improving Mason’s gift acceptance policies, and we are a stronger university today.”

Transparent GMU and other student groups have in recent years obtained documents exposing the tight relationship between Mason and the Charles Koch Foundation, which gives tens of millions of dollars annually to universities across the country.

The school was prompted to overhaul its gift-acceptance policies by revelations that early gift agreements between the university and the Koch Foundation gave the foundation a say in the hiring and firing of some professors.

Mason has been by far the foundations’s largest recipient, and critics contend the money has led to a conservative bent in its teaching of law and economics.

Terri Cofer Beirne, chair of the university foundation’s board of trustees, said the ruling is a sound one and upholds the principle that “our donors have certain rights, including privacy, associated with their gifts.”

Court papers filed in the case show that states across the nation have issued varied rulings on the topic, depending on how each state’s laws are written.

-MATTHEW BARAKAT, Associated Press

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