Legislators aim to shield foundations from public scrutiny with Georgia law

GEORGIA — A bill that allows public universities to withhold documents and records from the public to protect donor confidentiality was passed in the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate in April, bucking a nationwide trend of openness.

Public colleges and universities, Republican legislators in favor of the bill argued, are at a disadvantage because foundations at private universities are not required to release information about their donors. Recently, some state supreme courts have ruled that foundations at public universities are subject to open-records laws, which requires the release of documents for public knowledge.

“Foundations are major bodies that are part of institutions, but these bodies have huge ramifications on the policies behind the universities,” said Holly Manheimer, director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “So they’re really powerful institutions that have a lot of decision-making power and can make an impact.”

Thomas Jackson, associate vice president for public affairs at the University of Georgia, supports the bill because he thinks donor privacy is essential for the university to run as well as it can.

The University of Georgia has three employees who work solely for the foundation and about 20 other employees who work for the university and the foundation. Salaries for all employees who work for both the university and the foundation are paid with public money; two of the three employees who work solely for the foundation are paid with public money. The executive director of the foundation is the only employee whose salary is paid with foundation money, Jackson said.

“There’s a definite chilling effect among donors,” Jackson said. “They’re concerned that under a state with really open public records laws, which Georgia is, that their private financial records would be open to public scrutiny, such as wills, financial transactions, trust agreements. And that’s what this bill is seeking to protect.”

Jackson said that every year the university prints an honor roll of donors, including the amount each donor gave, unless donors specifically request that their names remain anonymous.

“This bill will help set at ease the minds of the donors that their private business will become public record simply because they made a donation to a state university,” Jackson said. “There’s no intention to withhold their names. It’s not a secret who is giving, it’s their personal financial records that are trying to be protected.”

Manheimer said this bill could have devastating effects on the future of Georgia’s openness.

“Public oversight of foundations such as these, including the information that this bill would ultimately conceal, has been critical in exposing prior issues of public concern,” she said.

Manheimer said proponents of the bill testified at the legislative hearing that they feared information about anonymous donors would be disclosed. However, she said, proponents were not able to cite any instance where such exposure took place.

Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue supports the bill, and is likely to sign it into law in late April or early May, Manheimer said.

reports, Spring 2005