The Board of Trustees has approved the payment of $20,000 USD to Robert Fiske, a high-profile New York City lawyer hired by the University to attempt to clear Principal Karen Hitchcock’s name.
Fiske is asking the New York State government to launch an investigation into allegations of ethical misconduct by Hitchcock during her time as president of State University of New York (SUNY), Albany. The Mar. 2 Board of Trustees meeting marked the first time Fiske’s payment was released to the public.
Rae said he would prefer not to speculate on what the Board of Trustees would do if no progress was made with the New York government over the next few weeks, saying only that the Board would review the matter and proceed from there.
“We’ll wait and see what happens and then we’ll see what the Board’s response is,” he said. “We’ve been doing our best, and we’ll have to wait and see. I’m not going to make predictions on matters which are out of my control.”
The money will cover services rendered during the spring of 2005 and again beginning in December 2005. According to documents released under the University’s Freedom of Information Act, Fiske has already invoiced the University for about half that amount—$9,047.12—for his first period of work While a loophole in New York law—which has since been closed—exempts people who leave their jobs with the state from being investigated by the ethics commissioner, the board aims to convince New York Governor George Pataki to launch an investigation anyway.
“[Hitchcock has] basically been caught in a Catch-22 and the efforts are to break that Catch-22,” John Rae, chair of the Board of Trustees told the Journal. “We believe that for Queen’s, we require independent counsel and we, on good recommendations, retained Mr. Fiske, who could not have served our needs more professionally.”
Rae said the issue of hiring a lawyer on this matter first came up last March. At the Mar. 4, 2005 meeting, the Board of Trustees expressed unanimous confidence in Hitchcock. Rae said the board would work towards dismissing “as decisively and conclusively as possible the baseless allegations raised in the media.”
Rae told the Journal Fiske was working for the University by the Mar. 4 meeting as part of the Board’s initiative to “lend what assistance we could to make sure that Dr. Hitchcock had access to due process.” Fiske worked between March and May 2005 to persuade the New York government to initiate an investigation, Rae said.
Rae said Fiske’s efforts stopped around May 2005 because of “inaction” on the part of the authorities in New York State.
“We tried hard to get a resolution,” he said. “Letters were written and nothing seemed to happen.”
In December, however, the University brought Fiske back on board following the Albany Times-Union’s publication of affidavits alleging Hitchcock’s ethical misconduct, which brought the issue back into the limelight.
During private meeting on Dec. 16, the Board resolved to appoint Fiske to “take all appropriate steps to assure that a fair and complete inquiry is conducted as expeditiously as possible into the recently repeated and publicized allegations” against Hitchcock.
In a statement given at the Mar. 2, 2006 Board of Trustees meeting, Rae said that “the proper venue for an investigation of the allegations concerning Dr. Hitchcock is the Attorney General of New York State,” and that “efforts to establish a fair hearing in New York State for Dr. Hitchcock are ongoing.”
“That was our commitment then, and it was our commitment in December when it came out again,” Rae told the Journal.
Rae said Fiske’s role is more as a representative of the University’s interests than as a lobbyist.
“The right word is, to represent the interests of Queen’s University in this matter,” he said. “The interest of Queen’s University, well-expressed, is that we wanted to make sure that Dr. Hitchcock was given a fair opportunity to clear her name and we felt that was in the best interest of the University.”
Rae’s statement to the Board also said Hitchcock “has assumed all costs of her own legal representation.”
“Her counsel represents her—no one else can represent her, and she has assumed that from the beginning,” Rae told the Journal. “Mr Fiske is representing our interests and [Hitchcock’s personal lawyer Michael] Whiteman is representing the principal’s interests.”
Rae added that both Hitchcock’s attorney and that of the University are working in consultation towards the same goal.
“Dr. Hitchcock and her counsel have done everything in their power to try to get proper venue, due process, and a fair and impartial inquiry. They could not have been more rigorous in trying to do that from the beginning,” he said.
Rae added that in addition to acting in the interests of the University, the Board’s decision to hire Fiske stemmed from a belief in every person’s right to due process.
“I am not a lawyer and I’m certainly not experienced with New York law, and it was believed that we required the services of someone who had those experiences,” he said. “It’s very reasonable that we would have counsel in these circumstances.”