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RU missing Tartan case: Editor remains steadfast, asks for apology

RU missing Tartan case: Editor remains steadfast, asks for apology

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Radford University concluded its investigation in November of the approximately 1,000 copies of the student newspaper that went missing from its campus last semester — but there remain some who are not satisfied.

Dylan Lepore — a senior and The Tartan’s editor-in-chief — wrote as much in a letter sent to President Brian Hemphill and published on the paper’s website Thursday.

The media studies major’s letter begins, “It’s been 133 days since The Tartan’s newspapers were stolen Sept. 18. Still no conclusion.”

While the administration has denied any involvement in the incident from its inception, Lepore said he believes the university didn’t complete a thorough investigation.

Lepore said he still gets inquiries from students and faculty from all over campus about why the matter hasn’t been resolved.

“I don’t appreciate it [the university’s investigation],” he said in a Thursday interview. “Nobody feels comfortable with how it ended.”

Among the faculty members not comfortable with how the university handled the situation is longtime media professor Bill Kovarik.

In an Oct. 28 email obtained by The Roanoke Times through a state Freedom of Information Act request, Kovarik discusses with another colleague how the investigation will conclude.

“The Tartan has an ongoing FOIA for the video tape. I’ll bet it will be destroyed before anything can be revealed and that eventually they will find a fall guy,” he wrote.

Lepore said after initially speaking with campus police right after the disappearance, he was told there would be no investigation. The university police department soon changed its mind as the incident garnered attention.

The police department told The Tartan in November it concluded that a staff employee, whose identity is undisclosed, had removed papers from four racks on campus on their own volition.

The worker — seen removing the papers on surveillance footage — was not charged with a crime but was allegedly punished, according to the university.

The employee’s motive or the missing papers from 18 other racks on campus were not mentioned in Chief David Underwood’s letter to Lepore.

The Tartan and The Roanoke Times requested video footage from buildings where the papers went missing. The university said it wouldn't release evidence in an ongoing investigation.

After the investigation, video from the incident was either not retained or put in the employee’s personnel file, according to university spokeswoman Caitlyn Scaggs.

“Following the completion of the comprehensive process, the footage of the classified staff member was transferred to the employee’s personnel file. The other footage was not retained. That footage did not show the removal of multiple copies of The Tartan by any one individual,” Scaggs wrote in an email.

Lepore wrote in his letter that, “Not retaining surveillance videos, requested under the Freedom of Information Act, is reprehensible.”

Scaggs said the university had no comment on why the video not protected by Virginia’s freedom of information laws under “personnel matters” or an “ongoing investigation” was deleted and not handed over to the parties that requested them.

Lepore said he is still determined to find out what happened to the remaining papers and believes his letter offers a way to “give the school a way to recover from this.”

“I am asking the Radford administration for a letter of apology, a commitment for better communication to its students, staff, and faculty, and to show that they stand behind student journalists and their never-ending fight for the truth, now and in the future,” his letter reads.

Scaggs wrote in an email Thursday that the university did not have any comment regarding Lepore’s letter.

Lepore said he received a response via email from Hemphill.

“Thank you for your thoughtful message. I appreciate all that you do for Radford University and our profession,” Hemphill wrote. “Let’s have lunch sometime in the near future!”

That Sept. 18 edition of The Tartan featured cover stories regarding the death of a recently-hired professor Steve Tibbetts, and the death of freshman Aris Eduardo Lobo-Perez after he was jailed on intoxication and alcohol charges.

A picture with story about Tibbetts featured him with his daughter in front of a street sign bearing their last name. The street is also marked as a dead end. Tibbetts’ widow submitted the picture and has told The Roanoke Times she had no issues with its publication.

The photo drew criticism from administration and faculty on campus, including Hemphill, according to emails obtained by The Roanoke Times.

Additionally, the newspapers vanished hours before journalist Katie Couric arrived on campus to moderate a political discussion. The first Highlander Discovery Institute event took place before a large crowd, including students, alumni, members of the school’s board of visitors and other invited guests.

Couric was paid $195,000 by the university for her appearance and an additional $18,000 for her plane flight and transportation from the New River Valley airport to the school and back.

School officials have repeatedly refused to release any documentation from the police investigation, because the university isn’t required to do so according to state law, they’ve said.

“There are mandatory disclosures in FOIA, and there are discretionary disclosures in FOIA. ... Discretionary disclosures include criminal investigative files. ... We will not be providing any additional comment and/or documentation above and beyond what was previously provided,” Scaggs wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, numerous organizations — including the Society for Professional Journalists, the Student Press Law Center, and Virginia Lawyers Weekly — have written letters critical of the university’s handling of the matter.

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