Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Whistleblower report: UW prof got job for unqualified daughter

by September 27th, 2011

On the heels of a mid-July state report that a University of Washington professor took a contract fee from a state agency for work he never delivered, and following another 2011 case which sparked a criminal prosecution against an alleged embezzler in the University’s Medical Center, comes an additional indication Sept. 26 of ethical troubles at the state’s flagship institution of higher learning. According to a Washington State Auditor’s Office whistleblower investigation report just released, a professor in the UW Medical Center’s Pediatrics Division of Neo-nataology appears to have violated state ethics law by using her position to get a job for her unqualified daughter as a research scientist and engineer assistant. The professor’s name, released by the auditor’s office in response to a media inquiry, is Sandra Juul Ledbetter and her daughter’s name is Kelly Ledbetter.

The report says state auditor investigators reviewed applications that were turned in to the UW Med Center’s pediatrics division’s Director of Administration and Finance for the open position and determined 19 of 29 applicants met the education and experience requirements but that Kelly Ledbetter was not one of those 19. Further, the report states, Sandra Juul Ledbetter was present at a final panel interview of her daughter and “was involved in the decision” to hire her.

The whistleblower report, sent today to UW President Michael Young by State Auditor Brian Sonntag, concludes there’s reasonable cause to believe Juul Ledbetter “violated the state ethics law and used her position to secure employment for a relative.” Chapter 42.52 of the Revised Code of Washington details laws on ethics in public service, and section 42.52.070 states: “Except as required to perform duties within the scope of employment, no state officer or state employee may use his or her position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or herself, or his or her spouse, child, parents, or other persons.”

As is typically the course for alleged ethics laws violations by state employees, the case has been referred to the Washington Executive Ethics Board. The ethics board’s Executive Director Melanie DeLeon said the case will be reviewed by the board at its next meeting on November 18th and if the board chooses to initiate a complaint, staff investigators will do their own review and present findings back to the board, which would then make their own determination of whether there’s reasonable cause to determine an ethics law violation occurred. The next step after that, DeLeon explained, is that the respondent can opt for an administrative hearing to present their side of the story, or can enter into an Agreed Order which settles the case and could include a civil monetary penalty. After any administrative hearing, the board decides if a violation has occurred and what penalty will be applied, if any.

In a response contained in the state auditor’s whistleblower report, the University says it erred in three ways, by posting the wrong requirements for the job; by failing to identify (Kelley Ledbetter) as unqualified; and by not excluding (her mother) from the hiring process. The School of Medicine added it is developing a hiring process that will include UW and state conflict-of-interest policies, including state law on “special privileges.”

The entire ethics board process for a case can take typically anywhere from six to 12 months, DeLeon said. In 2011 to date, “many” reasonable cause determinations have been made by the board, of ethics violations by state employees, but no final orders or stipulations have been signed by the board yet this year so none of the related case documents are currently posted online, Deleon said. The ethics board did issue final findings of violations seven times in 2010, 13 times in 2009 and 15 times in 2008. At its Website, the board provides a compendium of those cases dating back to 1996, including brief summaries and links to documents.

UPDATE: The board on May 11, 2012 finalized a stipulated order with Ledbetter in which an administrative hearing is waived and she agrees to pay a $1,000 civil penalty.

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