OU's former chief legal counsel files Open Records Act lawsuit against the OU Foundation
NORMAN — The former chief legal counsel at the University of Oklahoma has filed an Open Records Act lawsuit against the OU Foundation.
Fred Gipson is seeking records about a proposed project in north Norman regarding a multipurpose arena and entertainment district. He sued last week in Cleveland County District Court after the foundation denied his request for emails, documents and financial records related to the proposed University North Park development.
"They are stonewalling me," Gipson told The Oklahoman Tuesday. "I just want to know where they've been spending the money."
Gipson made the open records request late last month on behalf of 70 Norman residents. Some are former OU employees and faculty. He said the residents have expressed concern over the project.
Gipson, 82, of Norman, was OU's top attorney from 1988 to 1998, he said. The Democrat is running for the 4th Congressional District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore.
In denying Gipson's request, the foundation stated it is "separate and independent from the university."
"Because the foundation is not a public body, internal documents and information maintained by the foundation are not public records," foundation president Guy Patton wrote May 30 in the denial. "The foundation exists to benefit the university but, in the final analysis, the foundation is answerable only to its donors — not to the university (or the general public)."
Gipson argues the foundation should be considered a public body.
"I don't think the foundation and the university can make the argument that they're totally separate. They have mixed assets and personnel," Gipson said.
He said the foundation only exists to serve the university, a public entity.
"The money in the foundation was given by donors for the benefit of the university and they are entitled to know how and where their donations are spent," Gipson wrote in the lawsuit.
If the foundation is found to be separate, then both employees of the university and the foundation are in violation of state law and the Oklahoma Constitution, the lawsuit alleges.
With the lawsuit, Gipson attached a letter mailed by the foundation seeking funds for the benefit of the university. The envelope was stamped with the "Oklahoma franking privilege," according to the lawsuit.
The franking privilege, which essentially is free postage, is "only to be used by state agencies," Gipson said. The stamp noted that the letter was "OFFICIAL MAIL" and "PRIVATE USE ILLEGAL."
"If the foundation is a public body as alleged herein, then the use of the franking privilege would not be illegal," according to the lawsuit. "If ... the foundation is a private entity, then the laws of the state of Oklahoma have been violated."
The lawsuit also alleges multiple checks made payable to OU ended up in the foundation's bank accounts.
"If the university made a gift to the foundation as a private entity then that gift would violate the Oklahoma Constitution," according to the lawsuit.
Gipson also noted OU employees often solicit funds for the university and request checks be made to the foundation.
In the lawsuit, Gipson's wife, Lynda Jean Gipson, is listed as the plaintiff.
Fred Gipson said there have been similar lawsuits filed in the past throughout the country. Last month, a judge ruled that the University of New Mexico Foundation was subject to its state's public records laws because it acts on behalf of a public entity, according to news reports.