Election Season Disclosure Guidelines Timely As CU Denver ‘Expert’ List Hits Snag
A PR advisory from the University of Colorado Denver raised concerns of possible conflict of interest when one of the listed experts provided by the school to speak on ballot issues—this year’s 2,500-foot setback known as Proposition 112—appeared to be the legal counsel for an anti-fracking group that endorses the measure.
The original release, entitled “Election – CU Denver Expert Guide,” was sent September 25th from Joy Meadows, a PR contractor for University of Colorado Denver, listing Meadows and Meme Moore, a Manager of Media Relations at the University of Colorado Denver, as points of contact.
“Election season is here so CU Denver created this handy 2018 Statewide Ballot Initiative Expert Guide, pasted below and attached. For easy reference, we’ve identified CU Denver experts who can speak to each ballot initiative,” Meadows wrote.
For Proposition 112, CU Denver listed four experts for media availability.
• Christoph Stefes, Political Science: Politics of energy and renewable energy
• Tanya Heikkila, Associate Dean, Faculty Affairs: Environmental and resource management policy and governance (including fracking)
• Chris Weible, Public Affairs: Science, tech and environmental policy (including oil and gas)
• Karen Breslin, JD, Political Science: Environmental policy and law, former employee of National Park Service
A Western Wire review of the four listed experts immediately drew concerns about Breslin, listed last.
In a March 2018 story in the Boulder Daily Camera, a Karen Breslin was quoted as the legal counsel for East Boulder County United, an anti-fracking group. Breslin, of Progressive Law LLC, had issued a letter, also posted to the group’s Facebook page, to the Lafayette City Council on EBCU’s behalf.
“I am writing on behalf of my client, East Boulder County United, regarding efforts by Lafayette to license oil and gas drilling within the municipality,” Breslin wrote.
In the Daily Camera article, Breslin did not offer additional comment.
Western Wire immediately reached out to CU Denver to ask if Breslin’s outside activities would be proactively disclosed, and if her connection as legal counsel to a group that opposes hydraulic fracturing and has endorsed Proposition 112 would be indicative of possible bias.
Meadows responded, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We complied [sic] this list based on biographies shared from individuals within different colleges/departments. We are not sure if this is indeed the same individual, but are looking into it. If so, we will not put her forward as an expert, as we agree, that could represent a conflict of interest. We are looking into this now and thank you for alerting us to the potential conflict.”
Moore said she would provide an additional response, and on Friday, sent this email to Western Wire (published in full), calling the original, unvetted release an “oversight” and that “[i]f a faculty member has a conflict of interest or personal/private employment, advocacy, relationships or alignment with one side of an issue that could result in bias or even the appearance of bias, the PR team would not put that source forward for an interview”:
“In our process creating a source tip sheet, we rely on individual departments and colleges to provide us with their experts. It is impossible for the PR team to be aware of the outside activities of all faculty members. For the ballot initiative source list, department staff provided names of faculty with expertise aligned with the many initiatives. Most faculty members listed were not aware that their names were added to this source list.
The ballot initiative tip sheet is so general / broad in scope / lacking detail, that it is not intended to include comprehensive information about any faculty member listed. The source guide, on its own, will never directly result in a reporter interviewing a specific faculty member. Rather, it is a tactic that encourages reporters to keep CU Denver top-of-mind when they need a source to inform their election coverage.
When a reporter wishes to interview an academic expert about a ballot initiative, the PR team would assess the reporter’s story topic and angle, learn their deadline, and determine who, if anyone, at the university would be appropriate to give an interview based on the specific interview request.
During the process of interview staffing and facilitation, while determining the best source available for an interview, we would review the reporter’s story premise with potential sources.
- If a faculty member has a conflict of interest or personal/private employment, advocacy, relationships or alignment with one side of an issue that could result in bias or even the appearance of bias, the PR team would not put that source forward for an interview
- Or, if the expert has a rare specialization and there is no other qualified expert, the source’s affiliations would be disclosed, and the reporter would have the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether or not to use the source and how.
If a faculty member were to solicit or conduct media interviews about ballot initiatives, or any other topic, in a personal capacity/any capacity not representing the university, the university PR team would not be involved, and the faculty member would be required to clarify that they aren’t speaking in their university role.
- Per our policy, “University employees should endeavor to prevent the appearance of university partiality in political campaigns; Private political activities must be conducted on personal time and without using university resources.”
I appreciate that you noticed someone on our source list who appears to be involved, in their life outside the university, supporting or opposing a ballot initiative for which they were listed as a source. I understand your concerns, and I thank you for voicing them.
I can assure you that CU Denver’s PR team, other staff and university faculty members are committed to transparency and would always disclose conflicts, outside activities/affiliations and/or recuse from representing the university to media when conflicts or noteworthy personal/outside affiliations exist. Our credibility depends on this transparency. And it is a matter of policy as well as a best practice, professionally and ethically.
Participating in media interview helps to enhance university’s academic and scholarly reputation and helps to promote the talents and expertise of our faculty and their research. We would never purposely undermine these aims by misrepresenting a source’s qualifications to speak about a topic.
It is simply an oversight that the source sheet includes someone involved with an initiative outside their university role, and, per our process, this oversight would not result in a reporter interviewing a source based upon incomplete or inaccurate information relating to the source’s credentials, stance or involvement with a ballot initiative.”
Moore also forwarded a link to CU Denver’s election season guidelines for employees, last updates on September 27th.
CU Denver—and the entire University of Colorado system—urges employees to refrain from: “sending emails from university-hosted email accounts in support of or in opposition to candidates or ballot initiatives” as well as using university supplies or infrastructure (phones, computers) to conduct campaign activities.
“University employees should always be aware that, as public employees, their activities may be subject to heightened scrutiny by the media and members of the public. Accordingly, they should take care to ensure that their private activities do not compromise their ability to carry out their official duties,” CU Denver wrote.