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State panel OKs employee-protection bill

By Brett Erickson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 16, 1999
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Phoenix - The debate over whistle-blower protection heated up yesterday after a state panel approved a bill requiring the UA to comply with state employee-protection guidelines.

However, University of Arizona officials are not convinced that a state mandate is needed to protect whistle-blowers.

"University actions should be adopted by policies, not state law," said Tony Seese'bieda, a spokesperson for the Arizona Board of Regents.

Current law protects state employees from being harassed or fired if they reveal information regarding illegal activities of their superiors or co-workers. The UA is exempt from state law, as all public universities fall under the jurisdiction of the Regents.

Seese'bieda said the university should be able to adopt its own policies with Regents approval. It would be unjust, he said, to force universities to abide by a legislative law when they are forced to adhere to the Regents' standards.

"You either are a separate system, or you aren't," he said. "You can't have it both ways."

Seese'bieda said the Regents have yet to take an official stance on Senate bill 1396, which passed through the Government and Environmental Stewardship Committee yesterday by a 6-1-2 vote.

If passed, SB 1396 would allow UA whistle-blowers who are punished by campus administrators to take their case to a neutral third party, said Carol Bernstein, the president of the Arizona chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

A similar bill passed through the state House and Senate last spring, but it was scratched after the three university presidents, including UA President Peter Likins, promised to amend their whistle-blower policies.

Likins said that the revised UA policy would allow employees to file a hearing request if they were dissatisfied with the university's decision regarding their complaint.

"The hearing will be conducted by an independent hearing officer, external to the university, chosen by mutual agreement of the complainant and university," Likins said in a letter with the other university presidents.

To date, the UA has not adopted the new arrangement as official policy, though they have taken on an interim policy that allows disgruntled complainants to appeal to an external hearing officer.

Greg Fahey, UA's chief state lobbyist, said the interim plan is a "major change" in university policy. He said the UA will use professional arbitrating groups as the neutral party.

Fahey said the issue of whistle blowing is not a big problem, as there have been "very few" complaints.

"The idea that this is a major crisis is just a bogus notion," he said.

Sen. David Petersen, R-Mesa, said the bill is important to whistle-blowers because it also gives them the chance to hire legal representation if university officials use prohibited reprisals.

According to Bernstein, current UA policy forbids lawyers to represent whistle-blowers.

Petersen, the bill's sponsor, added that whistle-blowers are at a disadvantage because the present system heavily favors the university.

"From my experience, they (whistle-blowers) seem to have valid complaints," he said. "We're talking about an employee telling the secrets of a university."

The issue of developing state legislation to protect university whistle-blowers came to the forefront in 1998 when Likins terminated the contract of former UA Regent Professor Marguerite Kay for allegedly falsifying research.

Kay alleged her dismissal stemmed from comments she made accusing former UA Vice President for Research Michael Cusanovich of misusing university funds.

The bill must pass through the full Senate and House before moving to Gov. Jane Hull for final approval.