Katehi scandal at UC Davis called ‘worse than pepper spray’

As Linda P.B. Katehi’s hold on her job as chancellor of UC Davis began to unravel in March and April, her staff alternately conceived talking points to lead her out of the controversy and blamed its own failings in helping to create the crisis, newly released documents show.

UC Davis officials discussed helping Katehi slip out of a legislative hearing, critiqued her answers in media interviews and bemoaned coverage by The Sacramento Bee of her actions, which ultimately led to her suspension April 27. They provided talking points on how Katehi should handle press questions about the hiring and repeated promotions received by her daughter-in-law, along with the university’s hiring of consultants to help scrub the Internet of references to the 2011 pepper-spraying of student protesters by campus police.

The documents provide a glimpse of behind-the-scenes efforts Katehi’s staff made as the crisis spiraled out of control after the chancellor accepted a seat on the for-profit board of DeVry Education Group and angry students began a series of protests against her. As the weeks passed with more media scrutiny, the documents show how the controversy was wearing on some.

“I have to stop looking at this stuff …,” Katehi director of executive communications Gary Delsohn wrote in an email sent at 4:54 a.m. April 16 to colleague Gary Sandy.

“We are the laughingstock of the world right now, and we’ve given a pathetic, dying newspaper a day in the sun,” added Delsohn, a former Sacramento Bee reporter who also wrote speeches for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It makes me physically ill,” Delsohn continued. “This story is everywhere. Worse than pepper spray. It will fade away, but not for a while. And based on our track record, it’s a sure thing we will do more stupid stuff as we try to put it behind us. We have too many soft-headed people making decisions …”

Delsohn declined comment Monday.

The internal handwringing followed Bee stories revealing that Katehi had accepted seats on the boards of DeVry University and textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons, as well as revelations that the university spent $175,000 paying two firms to scrub the online image of UC Davis and Katehi in a way that would minimize references to the 2011 pepper-spraying incident.

The documents, released to The Bee through a public records act request, do not contain any emails from Katehi or her chief of staff, Karl Engelbach, regarding the board seats or Internet reputation efforts.

UC Davis said in releasing the documents late Friday that it would provide “additional documents to you as they become available over the next couple of weeks.”

The documents that were released included “listening reports” prepared for UC Davis officials on how the university and Katehi were being mentioned in news coverage, talking points prepared for the chancellor as she gave media interviews and a warning that her Wikipedia page had been changed in the midst of the crisis.

“Have you seen the Wiki edits that were made to the chancellor’s Wikipedia page?” read an April 6 email from Artem Trotsyuk, Katehi’s director of executive online communications, to Jonathan Korn of of Idmloco, one of the firms hired to improve the school’s online presence. “A whole section (about) conflict of interest board memberships was added.”

Korn replied five minutes later that the edits to Katehi’s page “started on March 5th with the majority from one person on April 1.”

Idmloco, a Sacramento firm, kept close tabs on how Katehi was being portrayed in stories online, and sent a March 23 email to a Katehi aide about the impact of an Atlantic magazine story on the student effort to oust her. The story had been shared on Facebook and Twitter 940 times.

“Over all, while it is an increase in share volume for negative articles about the Chancellor, this article does not have any new revelations,” the email from Idmloco account executive Tyler Smith said. “Shares will continue to go up, but ultimately it might not be a huge blow to the chancellor.

“As of the moment, share volume is still down compared to earlier this week. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Controversy erupted on campus in early March, when The Bee reported that Katehi had accepted the DeVry post. Student protesters began a five-week occupation of the fifth floor at Mrak Hall, where Katehi has her office.

“Have you been up to the fifth floor?” one UC Davis official wrote to a colleague March 14, adding that the scene was “a bit eerie, to say the least.”

As protesters maintained a presence outside her office nonstop, Katehi began scheduling meetings at the law school’s faculty lounge, according to copies of her calendar that were released under the state’s public records law.

Katehi was suspended April 27 by UC President Janet Napolitano. She said the chancellor would be investigated on suspicion of lying to her and the media about the hiring of the firms to improve her and UC Davis’ online image, suspected misuse of student funds and suspected nepotism.

That investigation, which Napolitano has said she wants completed by Aug. 1, has included interviews with Katehi, who has hired a lawyer and media spokesman and has made no comments since her suspension.

Because of the Katehi controversy, the UC Board of Regents will consider a proposal Thursday that would strengthen its policy regarding oversight of outside jobs for top executives.

Some of the documents released to The Bee focus on answers prepared for her to use in dealing with questions about the hiring of Idmloco, a Sacramento media company, and Nevins and Associates, a Baltimore firm that promised “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”

“How were you involved in the Nevins work?” read one question UC Davis officials expected her to be asked.

“I was aware of the work but I was not involved,” the suggested answer read.

A separate document of “Frequently Asked Questions” includes one inquiring as to whether Katehi was “more interested in trying to improve her reputation than that of UC Davis.”

“Chancellor Katehi puts the interests of the university first, beginning with the students and faculty,” the answer reads. “She consistently shines the brightest light on them.”

Other documents focus on details of her family’s jobs at UC Davis, which include her husband working as a professor and her son and daughter-in-law working at the university.

In a three-page section titled “Family Ties,” one area of “key messaging” suggested she respond to questions about nepotism by declaring, “From the beginning I have made sure that I am not involved in any decisions about (her daughter-in-law’s) career advancement or salary increases.”

Emily Prieto, who would later become Katehi’s daughter-in-law, arrived at UC Davis in 2013 as an executive analyst with a $77,000 salary, according to the UC Office of the President. In 2014, she was promoted to chief of staff to Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Adela de la Torre and was paid $90,419, according to a UC pay database. In 2015, she added assistant vice chancellor to her title. She currently is paid $132,457 annually.

Emails obtained by The Bee through a public records request show that Prieto was being considered for yet another promotion and possible raise earlier this year. The promotion to associate vice chancellor was requested by de la Torre because of expanded duties due to a reorganization of the Student Affairs Department, according to university documents.

Engelbach, Katehi’s chief of staff, called the request “entirely appropriate” in an email to de la Torre. He indicated that he would consider the request instead of the chancellor.

The promotion was discussed in emails between de la Torre, Englebach and others between January and June of this year, but as of Monday, Prieto had not been promoted, said university spokeswoman Dana Topousis.

The “family ties” section also included questions she might be asked about the employment of her husband, Spyros Tseregounis, as a professor and suggested she note that he was hired by her predecessor and “could have taken a position at a number of universities but obviously we wanted to be at the same institution.”

That section also contains a suggestion “if pressed further” on the topic that she note such spousal hirings are common in academia if the spouse is qualified for the position.

“Why are your husband’s travel expenses paid for by the university?” was another potential question posed by Katehi’s staff, with this suggested answer:

“Sometimes my husband travels as an official ambassador of the university, which is part of his official duties as the spouse of the Chancellor.”

The documents also reflect how closely university officials tried to monitor the damage the controversy was doing to UC Davis’ reputation, which included tracking Twitter accounts of Katehi critics, lawmakers and students.

A March 16 email from Idmloco’s Smith to Trotsyuk noted that “recently some of the 2011 incidents have started (to) resurface” online, an apparent reference to the worldwide condemnation of Katehi after campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters.

“We’ve been monitoring the situation closely with the search tracking tools we’ve built and social share counts,” the email added. “Even through the volatility of the digital presence of Chancellor Katehi, we are starting to observe clear trends.

“Since the crisis began unfolding, search has been in a constant state of fluctuation. Many stories of the Chancellor’s involvement with DeVry and John Wiley and Sons have quickly come and gone, and barring further perceptions of wrongdoing, many of the current stories will likely filter off the top page.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

Read the documents

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