Wright State research corporation seeks to block records release to Dayton Daily News

Dennis Andersh is director of the Wright State Applied Research Corporation, the research arm of Wright State University. A forensic audit by Plante Moran found WSARC was responsible for the bulk of the $4 million in budget overruns and funding shortfalls uncovered by the audit. Andersh says steps have been taken to fix the problems.JIM WITMER/STAFF

Wright State Applied Research Corp. asked a Greene County court this week to prevent Wright State University from releasing emails to the Dayton Daily News.

WSARC is nonprofit that operates as Wright State’s research funding arm. The agency argues in its filing Monday in Greene County Common Pleas Court that the records sought by the newspaper are attorney-client privileged.

The records Wright State wants to release but the research corporation doesn’t are an unredacted version of 2,757 pages of emails to and from WSARC CEO Dennis Andersh, who is a Wright State employee.

A heavily redacted version of the records — a large number of pages blacked out entirely — were provided to the Dayton Daily News in August 2020 in response to a public records request made in January 2019. Wright State informed WSARC it intended to provide the newspaper with the unredacted records after the Dayton Daily News objected to the number of redactions, the court filing says.

Judge Stephen Wolaver granted a temporary restraining order preventing Wright State from releasing more records until Oct. 19 and scheduled an Oct. 13 hearing on the matter.

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The records requested by the Dayton Daily News were three months of emails from 2018 to or from Andersh referencing the Advanced Technical Intelligence Center, an intelligence school supported by Wright State, as well as emails referencing the local consulting firm CBD Advisors. The newspaper also requested Andersh’s personnel file and records of the sale of ATIC’s Beavercreek property.

ATIC closed abruptly in 2018 and its building sold to Beavercreek real estate firm Synergy & Mills for $4.2 million. ATIC purchased the property in 2014 for $4.8 million from Mills Morgan, according to Greene County property records. Both Synergy & Mills and Mills Morgan were run by Bob Mills, who died in July.

Andersh also is a Wright State University employee overseeing its applied research programs. He was paid $242,555 by the university last year, according to public payroll records obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

Unredacted portions of the records indicate WSARC contracted with CBD Advisors. One page, with a Wright State Research Institute header, says the agency planned to spend $25,000 with CBD in FY2019.

Emails and invoices reference CBD helping WSRI with strategic planning, communication and government relations. Many of the pages referencing CBD are largely blacked out.

CBD Advisors partner Vicki Giambrone declined to comment Wednesday saying she was unaware of the issue and needed more time to respond.

According to the court filing, Wright State University received the records request and pulled the emails off the university email server the research corporation uses. WSU then ran the response through WSARC for review before sending them to the Dayton Daily News.

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The Dayton Daily News responded the same month with concerns about the number of redactions. The newspaper in its response noted that redacted documents included those labeled as Wright State financial documents, as well as presentations and annual reports. The newspaper asked for unredacted records.

“In response to the media’s demand, WSU informed WSARC that it intends to produce un-redacted copies of the emails to the media, immediately,” according to the court filing.

“WSARC is strongly opposed to WSU providing the media with WSARC’s un-redacted emails, because such emails are subject to attorney-client privilege and not subject to disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act,” the court filing says. “Moreover, WSARC contends that its emails, in general, are not public records.”

A Wright State University spokesman on Tuesday said the university does not comment on pending litigation. Neither Andresh nor Timothy Pepper, a local attorney who filed the injunction request for the research corporation, returned a call seeking comment.

The relationship between WSARC and WSU has evolved since WSARC was founded in 2011. This was largely spurred by scandals growing out of WSARC relating to misuse of federal work visas, improper payments to a high-dollar consultant, and financial problems.

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A three-year affiliation agreement between WSU and the research corporation is set to expire this month. It’s unclear what the relationship between the two entities will look like in the future.

Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in public records cases, said attorney-client privilege is often over-used by governments and doesn’t cover all communication between public officials and their lawyers. If a record contains legal advice, he said, only that portion of the record can be redacted and the rest of the record is still public.

“What is protected is legal advice,” he said. “That does not mean that just because an attorney is copied on an email that makes that email protected by the attorney-client privilege."

Ohio law has a four-part test for determining if records of private entities fall under the Ohio public records law, Greiner said. That test considers whether the private entity is doing government work, receiving a substantial amount of revenue from the government, its day-to-day activities are controlled by a public entity and whether it was created to avoid the public records law.

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