Reports of unauthorized monitoring of several Garden City Community College employees’ emails prompted the college to open an investigation Friday, an action that included starting the probe with the college's information technology department and placing its three-man staff on suspension with pay until further notice.
The three employees, IT Coordinator Andy Gough, Network Manager Andrew Knoll and PC Technician David Larsen, have since retained attorneys Jean Lamfers and Robert Lewis, who are representing several other GCCC employees and community members regarding matters at the college.
GCCC President Herbert Swender, GCCC attorney Randy Grisell and Vice President of Administrative Services Emily Clouse declined to comment on the investigation on Friday. But on Tuesday, Grisell said that a GCCC staff member with technical experience had approached college administrators late last week regarding “irregularities in the monitoring of email accounts at the college.”
Grisell said information being sent and received from employees' email accounts was accessed and saved by an unknown party. He said some of the data included correspondence between a staff member and Grisell as counsel, and any monitoring would violate attorney-client privilege.
Upon receiving the information, Grisell said, college administrators decided to open an investigation into who was possibly monitoring the employee’s emails, how and why they were doing so and what could be done to address the situation.
On Friday, the college reached out to IT services provider ConvergeOne to conduct the investigation, as well as to local law enforcement to investigate how the information may be used, Grisell said. He said he did not currently know if such an investigation would be carried out by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation or the Garden City Police Department.
“It could be that some of the conduct of whoever it is that is accessing email accounts and possibly using that information to the detriment of the account holder or the college or the Board of Trustees, could be committing a crime,” Grisell said.
Grisell said any concerns about other college employees’ technological privacy being at risk due to the investigation itself was baseless and speculative. He said ConvergeOne was only reviewing the accounts of employees whose privacy had been breached.
Because the IT department was the starting point for the investigation, college officials decided to suspend the department’s employees so they would not be involved with the independent case, Grisell said. He said he believed that decision was made by Swender.
ConvergeOne staff from Wichita are currently on campus and potentially will remain there until the college has a better understanding of the situation, Grisell said.
Gough and Larsen said they were on campus when they received letters from Swender dictating the terms of their suspension midday on Friday, after which they were escorted off the premises. Knoll said he was on vacation at the time and received his letter Monday morning.
The letter, a copy of which was provided to The Telegram by Lamfers, notified the three employees that they were on “suspension from (their) duties pending an investigation.” It barred them from contact with GCCC employees or students and access to the college IT network, system and administrative credentials during the investigation. The letter said any attempt to access said information could result in automatic termination and that the employees must cooperate in the investigation.
“Your suspension is not disciplinary action and does not indicate that we assume that you are guilty of any alleged conduct. Your ongoing suspension will be kept under review and we will keep the suspension as brief as is reasonably practicable,” the letter stated.
Grisell emphasized that the IT department’s suspension was not meant to cast blame.
“I’m not making any conclusions or speculating at all who’s responsible for it. It could be somebody outside the college. It’s just that that’s the place the investigation had to start, and I’m not making any allegations whatsoever, nor is anyone else with the college, against any of the three employees. At this point, they got the benefit of the doubt, and we certainly hope that none of them were involved in unauthorized access of email accounts,” he said.
All three employees said the college has not given them any further explanation regarding the suspension. They said they have not asked for more details in order to comply with the letter's direction to not contact any GCCC employee or student.
Knoll said GCCC Vice President of Business Affairs and Chief Financial Officer Glendon Forgey asked him for network passwords on Monday afternoon, which he provided.
Upon hearing Grisell’s explanation for the suspension, Gough said he thought the reasoning was vague and that he would need more specific information to be satisfied.
Gough said he did not think it was a coincidence that the suspension came a week after the KBI opened an investigation into how closed government employee documents regarding GCCC Trustee and former college bus driver Leonard Hitz, copies of which were kept at the college, were mailed anonymously to The Telegram in late June. That investigation is ongoing.
“We did nothing wrong,” Gough said. “For the last several months, we’ve been trying to keep everything positive, keep everything progressing forward, making sure that the students are taken care of. IT was keeping everything running under everything that was going on, everything that we’ve heard. We’re now outraged that we’re the subject of an unfounded attack by Mr. Swender and strongly suspect that they’re trying to cover something up.”
The suspensions and IT investigation began amidst two other investigations at the college, one by the KBI and another by Kansas City attorney Greg Goheen at the request of the Board of Trustees to look into a report the Faculty Senate presented to the Board of Trustees in May. The report accused Swender of fostering a toxic work environment by bullying, intimidating, sexually harassing and retaliating against college employees throughout his tenure and ultimately called for his termination.
Grisell said neither the investigation nor the suspensions had anything to do with the KBI investigation. He said the college has not notified Goheen about the suspensions or the IT investigation because they are entirely separate.
When asked why the college was quick to suspend the IT department for the sake of the recent investigation’s integrity but has allowed Swender to keep his position amidst an investigation that largely pertains to him, Grisell said there were key differences between the cases and the subjects’ roles at the college.
“We’re hoping this IT investigation can be over in a short period of time and those three employees can get back to work. Dr. Swender’s president of the college, and he has day-to-day responsibilities,” Grisell said.
The suspension and IT investigation immediately preceded a flurry of technical issues at the school. Friday night, Linda Hill, a programmer and analyst at the college who does not work under the IT department, sent an email, a screenshot of which was obtained by The Telegram, to faculty and staff saying no one had been able to log into the college’s digital curriculum platform, Canvas, since 2 p.m. that day. By Saturday morning, the college website was down, but was once again accessible by Monday.
Grisell said he did not know whether the technical issues were caused by the investigation.
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