Hitchcock seeks inquiry to clear her name

Karen Hitchcock faced a New York State Ethics Commission inquiry when she was hired as Queen’s 18th principal. The University has hired a lawyer to re-open that inquiry.
Karen Hitchcock faced a New York State Ethics Commission inquiry when she was hired as Queen’s 18th principal. The University has hired a lawyer to re-open that inquiry.
Journal File Photo

Responding to affidavits alleging unethical conduct by Principal Karen Hitchcock while she was president of a New York state university, the Queen’s Board of Trustees has hired a high-profile lawyer to ensure an inquiry is conducted on the matter.

The allegations first surfaced last February in an article by the New York Times. The newspaper reported that Hitchcock had allegedly offered to steer an Albany campus construction project to a developer, who in exchange would endow an academic position for her.

Since the New York Times article was published, Hitchcock has maintained throughout that all allegations against her are false. She told the Journal in an October interview that “the fact that the charges were absolutely baseless continues to be true.”

The allegations resurfaced in December, after the Albany Times Union, the New York capital region’s dominant daily newspaper, named the two high-ranking officials at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany who made the accusations in affidavits sworn on Jan. 28, 2004.

The testimonies and their authors were kept confidential until revealed by the Times Union on Dec. 14.

According to the affidavits from SUNY Albany Vice President Kathryn Lowery and former Provost Carlos Santiago, Hitchcock—as president of the university—had attempted to push through a $28 million no-bid contract for a company that had promised to endow an academic position for her. The statements also alleged she had championed construction projects pushed by a not-for-profit organization where both her husband and top adviser were board members.

“There’s frankly nothing new in either the affidavits or the Times Union reporting, but it’s a repeat of what’s happened before,” Hitchcock’s personal lawyer Michael Whiteman told the Journal. “Dr. Hitchcock would like to put those issues to rest, believing firmly as she does that there’s no substance to them.” The revived coverage of the alleged misconduct prompted Hitchcock to take action.

“Categorically, I deny any suggestion that I might have used my public office for private personal gain,” she said in a letter attached to a mass e-mail sent to students Dec. 16.

In the e-mail, she notified students that the Board of Trustees had agreed to support her pursuit of a full and impartial inquiry “so that I might respond to the suggestions [of misconduct] in a proper forum and dispose of them once and for all.”

University spokesperson Therese Greenwood said Hitchcock is not granting interviews.

“The principal is committed to remaining at an arms-length from the situation,” she said.

Two letters were attached to Hitchcock’s e-mail: the first was addressed to Board of Trustees Chair John Rae, asking the University to support her in finding a forum “in which I can respond to the rumors and innuendoes about my actions and lay them to rest once and for all.” Rae and University chancellor Charles Baillie responded in the second letter, announcing the appointment of renowned American lawyer Robert B. Fiske, Jr. of the New York City law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell, “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 Dr. Hitchcock.”

Fiske was the initial independent prosecutor in the mid-1990s Whitewater investigation involving former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. He has also represented multinational corporations Exxon, General Electric and Suzuki. His practice specialties include professional liability and white-collar crime.

Fiske’s role is to persuade state authorities to grant an inquiry, potentially reopening and bringing to conclusion an initial Ethics Commission investigation begun when Hitchcock was still a state employee at SUNY Albany, Whiteman said.

“The appointment of Robert Fiske, who is an experienced lawyer in New York, was to have someone who was skilled in New York law and had the ability to speak to appropriate people about trying to get venue,” Rae told the Journal. “All of his efforts since his appointment have been directed toward getting that venue.”

Rae said he spoke on behalf of both the Board and Fiske.

“When we have something to report, we will report it,” he said. “We’re obviously trying to work as quickly as we can to make sure Dr. Hitchcock gets the venue to which she’s entitled.”

The preliminary New York State Ethics Commission inquiry into the allegations was cut short when Hitchcock retired from her 13-year presidency at SUNY Albany. On Oct. 28, 2003, she announced her intention to retire, effective at the end of the 2003-2004 academic year. She later announced she would take a leave of absence beginning in January 2004, which Whiteman explained was because her husband was ill.

Due to a legal loophole, which has since been closed, any commission inquiry was required to be immediately terminated if a person under investigation left his or her job with the state.

Hitchcock was named Queen’s 18th principal on May 8, 2004, nine days after the Commission informed her of the inquiry. Rae said the University committee members who hired her were fully aware she faced the inquiry.

The inquiry remained confidential until anonymous sources disclosed vague details in the New York Times story published Feb. 25, 2005.

In Hitchcock’s October interview with the Journal, she also said that she had “sought every venue for being able to respond [to the allegations, but] there has been no such venue.”

Hitchcock’s letter to Rae explains this “venue” was the office of the New York Attorney General, whom she asked to pursue the inquiry. Attorney General officials told Hitchcock the office lacked the legal authority to reopen the case unless authorized by New York Governor George Pataki.

Whiteman said although he hasn’t received official notice, the Governor’s office has denied this authorization. Fiske is working to open that channel.

A complete examination of all allegations would show them to be baseless, Whiteman said.

“Or, if contrary to our views there is something, then everybody will know what it is.”

Rae didn’t disclose the cost of Fiske’s services, but said they are “reasonable to costs within the budget to Queen’s.” He added that Hitchcock has paid for all costs accrued from Whiteman’s services herself.

Whiteman said if authorities decline to grant Fiske’s request for an investigation, there’s a possibility the University will conduct its own, which Fiske would lead.

“While we would prefer to see the Attorney General conduct an inquiry, because the Attorney General has much more power than a private inquirer would have, Dr. Hitchcock is prepared to cooperate with any inquiries that the University may initiate,” he said.

Rae said the Board would review the situation with Fiske, should no state investigation be granted.

“We believe very strongly that Dr. Hitchcock deserves support in her efforts, which have been there from the beginning—to try to make sure one-sided allegations aren’t allowed to rest without a hearing.”

The Times Union obtained Lowery and Santiago’s affidavits containing the allegations in December after settling a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the newspaper in October.

After releasing the affidavits to the newspaper, Kermit L. Hall, SUNY Albany’s current president, said in a statement the move would be in the best interests of his university.

“Providing these documents the University has the best opportunity to address its future in an atmosphere of openness appropriate to a distinguished public institution,” he said.

A spokesperson at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, where Santiago is currently Chancellor, told the Journal he was away on business.

“He has no official comment beyond what is contained in the affidavit, which he said speaks for itself,” said Tom Luljak, vice chancellor for University Relations and Communications.

SUNY Albany spokesperson Catherine Herman also said Lowery has no further comment.

“She said that her statement stands.”

Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union, told the Journal that he is a “great fan” of Hitchcock, but as a journalist it was important his newspaper pursue the story aggressively.

“There was a lot of curiosity in this community when Karen Hitchcock left as to why she departed so suddenly,” he said. “There was a lot of speculation that she was pushed. We promised our readers that we would find out why she left.”

The media suggested it was Hitchcock’s dedication to her institution that may have caused the scandal, explained Alan Chartock, a SUNY Albany professor emeritus and syndicated columnist.

“She got into a bit of a fight with the Governor’s Office, who as I remember it now, tried to take the nanotechnology program—which she was largely responsible for developing—and move it out of SUNY Albany and under the governor’s wing,” he told the Journal.

He added that he was not surprised the governor hadn’t allowed the inquiry to be reopened, saying he didn’t believe an inquiry would be in Pataki’s best interests.

Whiteman said he didn’t know what basis there was to the Times Union speculation about why Hitchcock left. Herman said she was unaware of any clash between Hitchcock and other SUNY Albany administration allied with Pataki.

On Jan. 3, Pataki announced a new $435 million nanotechnology institute will be constructed at SUNY Albany. Herman said the project was begun under then-President Hitchcock.

“This is a project that continues to grow and expand,” she said.

Calls to Pataki’s office were not returned.

Smith described Hitchcock as “the leader of this community, more than the mayor, more than any other business leader, she was the driving force for both academic and, I think, economic development.”

Smith added that he found her to be insightful and a person of integrity.

“She was someone who’s seemed always to be dedicated to what was best for the university and for the community,” he said. “I have, therefore, no personal reason to doubt her account.

“Notwithstanding that, the individuals who worked for her, obviously, were very troubled by what they perceived to be her motivation. So we reported that.

“I do think everybody would have forgotten about it if we hadn’t continued to pursue the story.”

—With files from Christina Bossart and the Albany Times Union

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