INVESTIGATORS: U insider - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: U insider

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MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) -

The folks who run the University of Minnesota's facilities department say they have worked hard to cut spending and use tax dollars more wisely, but one of its top supervisors has had a number of complaints that raise questions about abuse of power and wasteful spending.

This Fox 9 investigation is 2 years in the making, and it will travel from the university's rooftops to the plains of South Dakota and out to Las Vegas and back. The map contains literally thousands of pages of university e-mails, receipts and work orders -- as well as state and federal criminal records.

The Standing Rock Reservation is in South Dakota -- 430 miles from the Twin Cities campus, and U officials -- like the vice president of university services -- would very much like to play up that distance.

"I really don't have any comment about something that happened off university property or off university time," Vice President of University Services Pam Wheelock told Fox 9.

A couple of years ago, one of Wheelock's top supervisors, Beth Louden, got in trouble out there. Louden is the district director in charge of upkeep of the buildings and land on the biggest chunk of the Twin Cities campus -- the East Bank and the athletic facilities.

Back in December of 2011, Louden got slapped with two poaching citations for shooting mule deer out of season on tribal land with someone else's tribal tags -- tags she bought from a guide named Jess Porras, a convicted felon.

When asked whether the Minnesota hunters knew they were using illegal tags, Porras said, "It says right on the tag."

According to federal criminal records, Louden's group took two deer back to a local motel to clean them in the bathtub.

"It wasn't a good idea, 'cause I knew it would be a bloody, bloody mess," Porras said.

Louden pleaded guilty to the two citations. Off campus? Sure -- but very much a university issue because according to an anonymous complaint filed with the U, Louden repeatedly harassed one of her subordinates to take her on the hunting trip in the first place, calling him dozens of times until he relented. He ended up paying a $250 fine for aiding and abetting the illegal hunt.

"That seems perfectly inappropriate," assessed Hamline University's David Schultz, a nationally recognized expert on government and business ethics. "This is using your position of authority for purposes of getting something from your subordinates that seems completely illegitimate."

The U says its own internal investigation found no evidence of harassment. They wouldn't say if they checked Louden's phone records -- something they wouldn't turn over to the Fox 9 Investigators, citing privacy.

"That's all the comment I have," Wheelock said. "It was investigated and closed without discipline."

The U also wouldn't tell Fox 9 if they reviewed the poaching criminal file. The Fox 9 Investigators obtained it through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Louden's employee told criminal investigators he felt "obligated to take Louden hunting."

"It's really an abuse of authority," Schultz said.

This is not the first complaint Louden has dodged without discipline. In fact, there have been 17 -- 3 times more than anyone else in a similar position. Thirteen of the complaints came in one anonymous letter that accused Louden of a number of things, including favoritism.

What appears to be tiny, toy people scurrying atop a cold, windy roof on the U's East Bank are real bidders taking part in a process that is supposed to be a level playing field. No one company should have an edge in order to protect the taxpayer.

"Certainly, it sends up the red flags," Schultz said.

Yet, anonymous facilities management workers complained that Louden rigged the system, eliminating the competition for a roofing company owned by a guy she's known for a long time. The business is Skyline Building Envelope Consultants, mostly roofing consultants. The man is Rod Schalesky.

An internal investigation by the university dismissed the complaint after Louden insisted their relationship was purely professional, but the U's own investigation failed to note the following things revealed in e-mails obtained by the Fox 9 Investigators:

1. Schalesky said he would drop proposals at Louden's home for her to review -- a practice that other consultants for several companies in the same business say is unheard of.

2. When Schalesky moved from his home and office, Louden told him in an e-mail, "If you need something, let me know."

3. Twice before, Schalesky's company was to present competitive bids on large products, and he discussed his bids with Louden. This, according to U policy, is supposed to be a confidential process.

4. The university paid Skyline's liability insurance so the company would work on a U project.

U officials say Skyline's work was still a bargain, but the e-mails show that the finance folks -- even Beth Louden's boss, Mike Berthelsen -- didn't like it. Still, the insurance got paid and Skyline got the job.

"I don't believe that violates any policy," Wheelock said repeatedly when asked whether such payments were appropriate.

University investigators dismissed a complaint that Louden appeared to organize the bidding process to minimize the competition for Skyline, but according to e-mails, it appears she and her staff did just that.

Instead of considering the inspection of several buildings as one big project, which would have to be put out for bid, she told them to break up the inspections building by building. That kept prices low enough that Skyline would be given the work without bidding for it.

A pile of purchase orders show Skyline pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 5 years.

The university investigation concluded in this a from U auditors that "using separate work orders for each building is a direction FM [facilities management] is considering, but the roofing strategy has not been finalized."

Even so, e-mails show that if anything, people were troubled by that approach. In fact, when people in purchasing objected to breaking up the work building by building, work was delayed. Louden's boss had to weigh in, and Berthelsen approved the system -- but only for a year. The following year, staff went back to a more competitive bidding system.

"Governmental agencies across the state need to be scrupulous in terms of this process, of people who are making decisions about accepting bids or supervising vendors, to police them for conflicts of interest or self interests," Schultz warned.

Why would Louden try to give Skyline the edge? Remember, she told university investigators she had a long professional relationship with owner Schalesky. The shiny metal roof on Louden's home wasn't always that way.

A few years back, the Loudens wanted to join a class-action lawsuit against the company that made the old shingles on her house, but before she could, she needed an inspector to sign off that her shingles were bad. A former inspector for Skyline did just that.

Yet, when asked how much Louden paid for that inspection, Schalesky told Fox 9, "There was no inspection."

Schalesky owns Skyline, and at first, he denied his company helped Louden with her lawsuit; however, when Fox 9 told him his former inspector had spoken with reporters, Schalesky said, "He went out there and picked up a sample of the shingles that had fallen off the roof."

The former Inspector said there was more to it than that, and settlement documents appear to confirm it. He says he took three samples from the roof and took photographs before filling out paperwork. Fox 9 checked to see what was actually required for the settlement -- photos and a sample from the roof.

The inspector said he didn't get paid for what he described as a $200 to $300 job. Why? Schalesky told him Louden was a good customer. Schalesky does not dispute it was done as a favor to Louden.

"There is no such thing as a small favor," Schultz said.

Favors? The U's investigation checked out complaints that Louden had employees working on her home or property. She denied it. That was good enough for the U auditors -- but Fox 9 spoke with neighbors who say they've seen university vehicles coming and going from Louden's house during the day.

Earlier this fall, Wheelock led a campus tour to show people -- especially lawmakers -- just how much money they need. By her own account, they've had to cut the number of custodians and are cleaning university buildings less often.

"We relied on student tuition increases to meet our programmatic needs across the institution, and we are hitting some real constraints about students being able to manage their debt and the cost of attendance," Wheelock said.

That's why Fox 9 looked at Louden's spending, too. One of the complaints about her said she spent what she wanted on things like food for meetings and gatherings. Two years of food receipts show the department spent $12,299 on food bought from local business for routine meetings -- most involving Louden or her workers. By way of comparison, the University of Wisconsin's facilities department didn't spend a dime because budgets are just too tight.

According to a memo written by Louden, she and 9 others planned to head to Las Vegas for what's billed as the largest trade show for custodial supplies in North America. The cost per person to the University was nearly $1,400.

Conference officials say the average size of groups attending was just 5, and none of the Big 10 universities the Fox 9 Investigators checked with -- Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, Illinois, or Michigan -- sent anyone to Vegas this year. Wheelock didn't know the U planned on sending people until Fox 9 told her.

"That sounds like about 1 percent of our organization in facilities management," Wheelock said.

Wheelock cut back on the number, going to seven -- and Louden was left behind in Minneapolis.

University officials are looking into the Fox 9 report that Skyline inspected the roof of Louden's home, but the school says Louden is good at her job. The U also provided numbers that they say prove Skyline is cheaper, but those numbers come from the time period after the company was forced to compete against other bids.

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