It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-up

In the latest turn in the Salaita affair, Ali Abunimah has filed a public records request with the University of Illinois, which the University has not complied with. Raising suspicions of…

Here’s Ali:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says it cannot find a key document that may shed light on donor pressure and organized efforts to convince top administrators to fire Steven Salaita for his criticisms of Israel.

The Electronic Intifada requested the document – a memo on Salaita’s views handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a major donor – under the Freedom of Information Act.

However, an 18 September letter from the university informed The Electronic Intifada that “no records responsive to your request could be located.” Under Illinois law, Wise is required to preserve the document as a public record.

The existence of the document in question was revealed in a 24 July email (see below) Wise sent to the university’s senior fundraising staff reporting on a meeting she had with what appears to be a major donor…In the email, Wise writes (emphasis added):

He said that he knows [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] well and both have less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism. He gave me a two-pager filled with information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be very telling.

This “two-pager” is the document that was requested by The Electronic Intifada and that the university now claims it cannot find.

Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is part of the legal team representing Salaita, expressed skepticism toward the university’s claim that it cannot locate the document.

“It is hard to believe that Chancellor Wise would have thrown out the two-pager on Professor Salaita given to her by a donor at a meeting that was important enough for her to email details about to top Illinois fundraising officials at midnight, unless there’s a reason she didn’t want it to be made public,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

“The two-pager might indicate a more organized effort to go after Salaita, and it will be one of the many documents we’ll seek in litigation,” LaHood added.

Under the Illinois State Records Act, documents received by Wise and the university are the property of the state. As a public official, Wise is legally required to preserve such records, which may not be disposed of except under conditions set out in the law.

The Electronic Intifada has filed a request with the Public Access Counselor at the office of the Illinois Attorney General to review the facts and law surrounding the University of Illinois’ failure to release the “two-pager” on Steven Salaita handed to Chancellor Phyllis Wise by a pro-Israel donor.

The request notes that under the Illinois State Records Act, Wise, a public officer of a state agency, is legally required to preserve the document in question and the university is legally required under the State Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act to produce the record for public inspection.

As the State Records Act states:

All records made or received by or under the authority of or coming into the custody, control or possession of public officials of this State in the course of their public duties are the property of the State and shall not be mutilated, destroyed, transferred, removed or otherwise damaged or disposed of, in whole or in part except as provided by law. Any person who knowingly and without lawful authority alters, destroys, defaces, removes, or conceals any public record commits a Class 4 felony.

Such felonies may be punishable by a term of imprisonment.

Given the facts set out in the post above and provided to the Public Access Counselor, the request asserts that “reasonable suspicion exists that a public record has been disposed of without lawful authority.”

The Public Access Counselor is an office established by law to help enforce the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.

“Working under the direction and supervision of the Attorney General and with a team of attorneys and professional staff, the Public Access Counselor’s mission is to help people obtain public documents and access public meetings,” according to the Attorney General’s website.


  1. Robin Messing September 28, 2014 at 8:06 pm | #

    The dog ate their homework

  2. John K. Wilson September 28, 2014 at 8:09 pm | #

    I certainly don’t defend anything else Phyllis Wise did in this case, but I find it highly believable that she threw out that 2-page attack on Salaita. Remember, she had already decided to get rid of Salaita, and she had no interest in what donors had to say except to pretend to care. The 2-page attack was probably just a print out of the Daily Caller article or something she was already aware of. The problem with the firing of Salaita was the crime itself, and there is no cover up of something they are proud about doing.

    • Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) September 28, 2014 at 8:19 pm | #

      John, I wouldn’t jump to conclusions here. She was handed the “two-pager” on July 23 in a meeting with a major donor as far as I can determine. Per Kennedy, it was not until the next day that a group of trustees met and it seems a decision was made to fire Salaita. I do not think it is at all certain that a decision had already been made when she met the donor. The “crime” of firing Salaita was done in the open. What officials have gone to great pains not to discuss is donor influence. We need to know what was in it. I think to speculate that it was just a copy of the Daily Caller article is not helpful either — Wise had already seen that article. We also know that another donor mentioned a “brief document” prepared by the Israel Education Center (please read my whole post). It is right and proper to try to gather as much evidence about what happened as possible. We can’t do that if Wise or others are destroying or concealing documents. And if they have done this with one document then who is to say they would not do it with others? They are not trying to conceal *that* they fired Salaita. They are trying to conceal *why.*

      • John K. Wilson September 28, 2014 at 9:17 pm | #

        You’re correct, it was July 24 when the Board met in executive session for 90 minutes (a News Gazette article wrongly said it was July 23). Nevertheless, whatever was on this 2-pager almost certainly is no different than what we’ve heard before. Trying to prove donor influence is going to be almost impossible, and the motivation ultimately matters little. Now, I do think the U of I was wrong to delete information in reply to an FOIA request, but there’s no evidence of intentional misconduct in failing to have a couple of sheets from some donor.

    • Corey Robin September 28, 2014 at 8:25 pm | #

      John, you’re quoted on August 26 as saying the following: “The fact that Wise was anxious to set up a meeting to discuss donors and Salaita’s hiring suggests that money may have a factor in this decision, and not just politics, as does the fact that the University of Illinois has redacted sections of this email about fundraising (in violation of FOIA laws). The University of Illinois needs to come clean and obey the law by disclosing the entirety of these emails by staff about fundraising…” Assuming this quote is correct, you’ve already noted that the UIUC has violated FOIA laws, so I’m not so certain why you’re so confident now that they would haven’t violated additional laws. Clearly they were concerned — as you are quoted as noting — about covering up their tracks before; again, not quite sure why you’re so sure they’re not doing it now.

      • fairbrit September 30, 2014 at 8:45 pm | #

        So it’s OK with you, is it, that Salaita wrote appallingly anti-Semitic Tweets about Israel, wishing settlers ‘to disappear’? Did he mean die? There is nothing wrong in criticising the Israeli government for its actions. WHAT IS WRONG HERE is that a professor feels absolutely no shame in revealing his anti-Semitism. You are all disgusting too. Shame on you in your ivory tower academic world far removed from reality. I feel like the child pointing to the emperor and seeing he is naked. You cannot see the real issue about Salaita.

    • Robin Messing September 28, 2014 at 8:50 pm | #

      If it was that innocuous, why didn’t they reply to Ali Abuminah’s request that the “two-pager” was a Daily Caller article that she had thrown out?

      We may never know what was in the 18 1/2 minute Rose Mary Woods gap of the White House Watergate tapes, but I’d be willing to bet it was more likely to be something Nixon wanted to hide than that it was an innocuous conversation.

      Maybe Wise and company will be able to come up with a convincing story that the two-pager didn’t contain evidence of undue influence, but I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion so early in the game.

    • Snarki, child of Loki September 29, 2014 at 7:00 pm | #

      “I find it highly believable that she threw out that 2-page attack on Salaita.”

      You don’t claw your way to the top of an academic organization by losing memos, whether trivial or important. Okay, perhaps she “lost” the memo, but didn’t lose the memo, if you get what I mean.

      If the 2-pager was shared with trustees, they probably have a copy too.

  3. G. Branden Robinson September 28, 2014 at 9:36 pm | #

    John K. Wilson wrote:

    “Nevertheless, whatever was on this 2-pager almost certainly is no different than what we’ve heard before.”

    How is this claim operationally distinguishable from:

    “Nevertheless, whatever was on this 2-pager certainly is no different than what we’ve heard before.”


  4. weshamrick September 28, 2014 at 10:04 pm | #

    If we’re speculating, I’d speculate that any old Daily Caller article would have been produced under the FOIA request without a second thought. I’d speculate further that the two-pager is either embarrassing and/or damaging because it contradicts their publicly stated rationale for why they fired Salaita.

    It really doesn’t matter as far as the law is concerned — there is every appearance that Wise and perhaps others broke the law by not preserving the document.

  5. David Green September 29, 2014 at 9:52 am | #

    I read “Israel’s Dead Soul” over the weekend. It’s an incisive and innovative critique. One of the chapters is a take-down of the ADL. In that light, I’d be curious to know if the ADL was involved with this persecution. That would be a wonderful smoking gun to discover, since it would put the lie to the notion that it was really about the tweets. Salaita’s critical scholarship, and the threat it poses to Zionist locked-down entities like the U of I (where I work and know well), are the issues.

    • adela September 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm | #

      In addition to Salaita’s scholarship that you reference, Salaita was also actively involved in the American Studies Association’s (ASA) Dec 2013 academic boycott resolution:

      “Today [Dec. 3, 2013], the American Studies Association (ASA) announced that its National Council, tasked by the general membership to make decisions on behalf of the organization, has unanimously approved the resolution submitted by the Academic and Community Activism Caucus to endorse and honor the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”

      Salaita’s involvement in this landmark academic resolution almost certainly was another factor in being targeted by pro-Israel donors/organizations. And let us not forget that Cary Nelson, who figured prominently in the early reports of Salaita’s (illegal) termination, also took a strong position against the ASA resolution on the basis that “This effort within the ASA is part of a long-term effort to delegitimate the state of Israel…”

      So as you rightly point out, there may be other factors in Salaita’s firing apart from the tweets.

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