Newspapers sue for access to settlement terms

ILLINOIS -- Two state newspapers have gone to court to get details involving a secret settlement between Lake Land College and a former administrator.

The Mid-Illinois Newspapers, comprising the Mattoon Journal Gazette and the Charleston Times-Courier, had tried to intervene in a federal breach of contract lawsuit brought by former vice president Goble Jessup against the college after he was fired in April 1997.

A settlement in the Jessup case was reached before a federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Urbana in September. But the settlement documents were sealed by the court at the request of the college and Jessup, said Bill Lair, editor of the Times-Courier.

Jessup was employed by the college for 11 years, but reasons for his dismissal were never given in an open session of the trustees. Jessup, formerly the vice president for business services and college treasurer, was fired because of insubordination, according to an article in the Journal Gazette. Jessup originally sued the college for $1 million. Among other allegations, he claimed the college's board of trustees violated his four-year employment contract, which was not up until 1999.

"We feel the taxpayers of the district have a right to know what the college was paying [Jessup]," Lair said. "His salary was public knowledge; his termination was public knowledge. So this settlement, where the college paid him some amount of the taxpayers' dollars, whether it was $1 or $1 million, this too should be public knowledge."

The school filed an objection to the newspapers' requests to intervene last fall. Judge David G. Bernthal denied the papers' request to intervene in the settlement, ruling that the papers did not have a legitimate interest in the case, financially or otherwise.

"Judge Bernthal's decision is telling the people here in the district that where their tax dollars go are not of public interest," Lair said.

In April, the newspapers requested the records in state court. Lair said the newspapers have also appealed their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

reports, Spring 2000