Judge rules against group seeking Koch Foundation gift info
Jul. 05, 2018
FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — A judge Thursday ruled against a group seeking details of the Koch Foundation's gifts to a Virginia university.
The Koch Foundation has given tens of millions of dollars over the years to George Mason University, more than any school in the country. The relationship faced increased scrutiny after the university named its law school for conservative jurist Antonin Scalia in 2016, in conjunction with a Koch Foundation donation.
Student-led group Transparent GMU sought details of donor agreements with the George Mason University Foundation, the school's philanthropic arm.
Judge John M. Tran ruled Thursday that the GMU Foundation is not a public body and not subject to freedom-of-information laws.
The transparency group said it will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
"We are very disappointed in Judge Tran's decision. We believe the public has a right to know the details of our university's operations, including its relationship with private donors," said Gus Thomson, a representative of Transparent GMU.
The university was dismissed from the lawsuit after it said it didn't have any of the donor agreements because they are held by the GMU Foundation.
Evan Johns, a lawyer for Transparent GMU, had argued that the foundation works closely with the school. Johns said that by managing the school's fundraising and relationships with private donors, the foundation carries out a core function of the university and should be subject to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act just like any other state agency.
While ruling that the foundation is not subject to FOIA, the judge said his ruling "does not absolve the University of the Responsibility, as a public body, to maintain records of the use of funds and programs it decides to develop."
Left unclear in the ruling is the precise role of the school's Gift Acceptance Committee. The judge said the committee cannot work in secrecy.
University officials have said in the past that receipt of Koch funds does not influence how or what the school teaches.
In April, documents released to a former student under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the university granted the Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations.
In a note to faculty at the time, University President Angel Cabrera wrote that the agreements "fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet."
Cabrera also issued a statement then saying he was ordering a review of all the university's donor agreements that support faculty positions to "ensure that they do not grant donors undue influence in academic matters."