Port: University system did not provide sufficient oversight of problematic Dickinson State purchases



Its recent history is not pleasant.

In 2012, an audit found that DSU was operating as a diploma factory for hundreds of foreign students.

In 2017, the late Dickinson State University Foundation has been dissolved through Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem after widespread and deep tax mismanagement was discovered by auditors.

So when the auditors working for the North Dakota University System examined a deeply problematic procurement process around an entrepreneur with personal connections to DSU President Steve Easton, it should perhaps come as no surprise to us that their findings have glossed over most of the problem.

Sensitive to the aforementioned story, NDUS officials may have wondered how much more bad press did the DSU need?

In June 2020, the state of North Dakota ordered an appropriation of $ 862,335 in CARES Act dollars to DSU, of which $ 60,000 will be used to help design new course delivery policies. The pandemic created an increased need for distance education, and the funding was intended to help DSU achieve this.

On July 19, 2020, Easton contacted an old friend of his time as a law professor at the University of Wyoming. He asked this friend, Nick murdock, who did at least one significant contribution to a fund Easton was associated with at UW, for his wife’s email. He then sent an email Maggi Murdock, indicating that he had $ 60,000 in funding and needed a contractor. “We don’t know exactly how we would contract due to the requirements of the tenders,” Easton wrote. “If you are interested or know someone who is interested, we would love to hear from you.”

On August 11, 2020, DSU approved a deal with the newly formed Maggi Murdock company called Learning body, which was formed in July and didn’t even have a website domain until 11 days before the deal was signed.

In the 47 days between when these funds were allocated by the state and the agreement with Learning Corps, DSU claimed, at one point, to have solicited bids from three different vendors, as required by law of the state.

This does not happen.

Dickinson State University President Steve Easton.  (Photo from the Dickinson Press file)

Dickinson State University President Steve Easton. (Photo from the Dickinson Press file)

A DSU official contacted two other companies about this contract. One was called iDesign, the other Symbiosis. The email request asked generic questions about the fee structure and other questions, but at no time was a request for proposal made. Indeed, DSU did not receive any response from iDesign, and although Symbiosis did respond with a few responses and a meeting request, at no point was a price mentioned.

How to evaluate an offer without price?

You can not.

This is not an offer.

The North Dakota University System, based in Bismarck, which oversees the state’s public universities, opened an investigation into the purchase in response to a call to its anti-fraud hotline, and from that investigation it produced two reports.

The first, reported by Dickinson Press last month, found the procurement process inappropriate, but allowed the contract to remain in effect and slapped the DSU administration on the wrist (I decline to use the word “slap” to describe this gloss):

Let us pause for a moment to consider how seriously flawed this process was.

On August 26, a few weeks after the execution of the agreement with Learning Corps, a DSU employee named Laura Nelson, then the Acting Vice President for Finance and Administration, emailed the DSU employee Anthony wiler regarding Symbiosis’ alleged offer. “You indicate below that you have received an offer from Symbiosis,” she wrote. “I don’t see an amount.”

“The amount was not among the information I requested,” he replied.

“If you haven’t asked for the payment amount, how do you know we received and chose the lowest bid for this purchase? Nelson asked.

That’s a good question, isn’t it?

The second NDUS report dealt with the personal relationship between Easton and the Learning Corps and claims to have found nothing untoward.

“The evidence did not indicate that President Easton was directly involved in the procurement process or in the selection of the supplier. Although he provided information to Learning Corps LLC prior to the offer, this is not a significant problem if other vendors receive the same information, this report says.

It’s a whole truckload of crap.

Easton made contact with the people who ultimately got the contract. He gave them information about the contract, including the amount of funds available, which the other sellers did not receive. The other vendors didn’t even provide DSU with anything that we could reasonably call an offer – one didn’t respond and the other didn’t request a meeting – and that’s Easton himself – even who ultimately approved the contract. He delegated authority, citing a lack of time, but he certainly did not recuse himself.

“I will not be able to review this document in depth this week,” Easton wrote in an email sent at 6:07 am Aug. 11. “I think this is urgent, please ask Dr. [Debora] Dragseth to examine it on my behalf. If she approves it and Chris P. approves it, please take that as my approval. “

The deal was executed later the same day.

Dr. Debora Dragseth, professor of business administration at Dickinson State University, poses a question during an open forum.  (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

Dr. Debora Dragseth, professor of business administration at Dickinson State University, poses a question during an open forum. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

To illustrate how close Easton is to Learning Corps and its owner, consider that in an email dated July 28, 2020, Murdoch asked Easton if a North Dakota-based legal advisor would assist them in the negotiations. Easton gave Murdoch two recommendations, one with a lawyer he had previously tried a case with, and the other with a lawyer at a Bismarck firm he worked for.

When Easton was asked to explain all of this, he dumped the blame on Dragseth, suggesting that she didn’t have the right amount of experience.

“At one point, I reached out to the person I knew who had the most experience teaching in remote settings, my former University of Wyoming colleague, Dr. Maggi Murdock, to see if she could identify someone who could provide this training or if she might be interested in doing it, ”Easton told Dickinson Press. “After Dr Murdock indicated that she was planning to form a company to submit a proposal, I advised Dr Debora Dragseth, our new VP of Academic Affairs and provost, that I would have nothing more to do with the procurement process, as I did not want to suggest a preference for Dr Murdock’s new cabinet. As a new VPAA / Provost who had only been in this position for about two weeks, Dragseth had not completed the requisite level of procurement training in the matter. “

Dragseth, for her part, defended the process – “the University was acting in good faith and our employees are not guilty of fraud or embezzlement,” she said – although she admitted it could have be “more carefully documented”.

What do we have left with?

At best, we have a university president who relied a little too much on some personal connections while overseeing a shoddy supply. At worst, we have an important contract that has been deliberately geared towards certain friends of the president.

Worse yet, when asked to provide surveillance, the NDUS released superficial findings completely out of step with the gravity of the case.

We have laws that dictate the procurement process for a reason. They are meant to keep the affairs of state away from inappropriate transactions, whether real or even just perceived.

These laws were not followed in this case, and that deserves more responsibility than the NDUS was willing to provide. Especially since, once again, the DSU has a long institutional history of fraud and embezzlement issues that warrants closer scrutiny, not less.

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Rob Port, Founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Contact him on Twitter at @robport or by email at [email protected]



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