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Lawmaker calls hearing to review Shirvani fraud allegations

State Board of Higher Education member Kari Reichert, left, answers questions Friday from Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who was investigating a claim that North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, right, used misleading information in a committee presentation.

BISMARCK -- A state lawmaker called members of the State Board of Higher Education and University System office before a House committee Friday to ask questions about what he believes has been a behind-the-scenes effort to discredit Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

"There's some very disturbing communications taking place behind the scenes in an effort to discredit the person who was hired to head up the University System," Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, chairman of the House Appropriations education and environment subcommittee, said Friday.

Skarphol said he feels allegations made by a University System employee that Shirvani presented misleading information to his committee was another ploy in a series of attempts to oust Shirvani.

Skarphol said he's upset at the board members he believes knew that University System employee Linda Baeza Porter was going to make the allegations, but did not share that information.

"I'm absolutely angry about it, particularly in regard to board members, because they did not inform others on the board, general counsel or compliance officer, but rather let it happen," he said. "I find that to be unethical and unprofessional."

Skarphol asked for an open records request for every email from Feb. 28 to early this week between state board member Kari Reichert, board Vice President Kirsten Diederich and Janice Hoffert, a nonvoting board member, along with University System employees Josh Riedy, the University of North Dakota's chief information officer; and Bill Eggert, the system's internal auditor.

On March 27, Porter, interim system office liaison officer for reporting and information, said Shirvani presented misleading information to the committee to make two college presidents look bad, using data to compare UND and North Dakota State University to larger schools such as the University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota to point out disparities rather than making comparisons to more similar-sized schools.

Porter said the presentation, and how it may have been changed, may have been fraudulent and could be a potential violation of State Board of Higher Education policy and state open records and fraud statutes. She asked the House Appropriations Committee to investigate.

Shirvani said last week that UND and NDSU were compared to the larger schools because they are larger, more "aspiring" schools to push the North Dakota universities to increase their graduation rates. Had the schools been compared to similar schools, he said the statistics would have looked worse.

Shirvani said Friday that his reputation has been diminished due to the fraud claim.

"I'm speechless. extremely dismayed and unhappy about the whole chain of events and allegations," he told the committee.

A 16-minute phone conversation between Porter and Shirvani was played to the committee, which was a conversation over what data should be included in the presentation to the committee. The conversation was recorded without Shirvani's knowledge.

"You hear anything that sounded fraudulent? Because I don't," Skarphol told the committee. "I hear someone in charge of an entity who gets frustrated with an employee because there seems to be a dilemma with this information."

The dilemma was what information needed to be included in the presentation and the extra time it took to validate. Shirvani said the information did not need validation because it came from a federal government website.

Reichert, who took the brunt of the questioning from Skarphol, said she looked into the data discrepancy after Porter raised concerns to her before the March 27 meeting. Reichert said Friday that she wasn't comfortable watching the University System look up graduation rate data and not inform the college presidents that it was going to be made available to the committee.

"The larger concern I felt was the presidents were going to be blindsided," she said.

She added that she felt the presentation "was part of an effort to show inconsistencies"

between North Dakota schools and larger universities.

Porter was not at Friday's meeting, which adjourned without a conclusion or any action taken by the committee. Skarphol said he will continue to go through the emails but doesn't plan to call another hearing.

The hearing lasted almost 90 minutes, with some committee members saying it was unnecessary and a waste of time.

Rep. Clark Williams, D-Wahpeton, said Friday that the committee was not prepared to have a hearing on the issue, and it should have been taken to another body to hear.

"It's been very divisive for our group," he said. "When this is all over, we will have accomplished very little, except hurt our relationships and real mission."

Skarphol said, "It's been so one-sided, I felt compelled to give the chancellor the opportunity to be vindicated, to some extent, of the latest charges."