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NDUS whistleblower files lawsuit

A North Dakota University System whistleblower who questioned her boss' conduct before a legislative body earlier this year said she plans to file a defamation lawsuit against her employer.

In a letter sent Friday through her attorney, Linda Porter, a university system office liaison officer for reporting and information, outlined her intent to sue the NDUS on the grounds of "libel and unlawful retaliation" that she said she has encountered.

In March, Porter testified before the North Dakota House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee, saying that embattled NDUS Chancellor Hamid Shirvani presented misleading information and "alternate data" about school graduation rates to North Dakota lawmakers in an effort to present the University System in a certain light.

"I had hoped it would not come to this," Porter said. "There are laws that protect people from retaliation from (whistleblowing). I'm looking to get my reputation back."

In the claim, Porter's attorney, Mark Schneider of Fargo, states that Shirvani and NDUS compliance officer Kristen Franzen have made "false accusations" against Porter in recent weeks.

Porter said she was asked by system employees to compile data for a March 18 presentation to the House subcommittee for appropriations, education and environment division. She said Shirvani and NDUS information officer Randy Thursby instructed her to change aspects of the data she compiled.

Since her testimony before lawmakers -- which Porter said was as a citizen and not an NDUS employee -- Porter said she's been ostracized by other NDUS staff. Citing stress and anxiety attacks related to testimony and the aftermath, Porter has been on leave from her job since May 3.

In an email obtained by The Press from Shirvani to system office staff dated April 10, the chancellor wrote: "Please feel free to maintain any personal relationship you have with Ms. Porter. That said, please feel empowered to limit your communications to professional matters if you prefer."

A sometimes ambiguous report dated April 24 from Bill Eggert, NDUS director of Internal Audit and Risk Assessment, stated Shirvani's presentation did not break State Board of Higher Education guidelines pertaining to "false record or communication," but also stated the chancellor's presentation could be "reasonably construed as misleading and thus in violation" of SBHE policy without "full disclosure or an explanation of the data."

In an article published by the Grand Forks Herald last month, Franzen denied Porter's claims against Shirvani as having factual basis, calling the accusations "simply not true." In his March 28 email to staff, Shirvani also rebuffed Porter's claims.

"Clearly, I am the black sheep in all this," Porter said. "The sheer pomposity of the way they're acting is amazing to me. It makes me very angry. (Shirvani) sat in front of a legislative council and said he wasn't going to retaliate and then he does stuff like send that email to 1,000 people saying not to trust me. I know there are always consequences for actions but they've gone out of their way to make me look bad."

On Thursday at a meeting in Grand Forks, the Board of Higher Education voted to allow a performance evaluation of Shirvani that would let college leadership, staff and students voice concerns about the chancellor's job performance. Not yet a year at his post heading up the NDUS, Shirvani has been publicly scrutinized by some lawmakers, staff and others since officially beginning his duties July 1.

Shirvani has referred to the questions about his leadership style and conduct "personal and professional attacks," according to a Forum News Service story published Friday.

NDUS spokesperson Linda Donlin stated in an email Friday afternoon that the system had not yet received information about a lawsuit from Porter, who said she has been an employee of the NDUS since 2002.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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