Lawsuits filed over ethics test

By Drake Baer

Marvin Zeman, professor of mathematics and president of the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale faculty association, hung a certificate of completion for the state-wide ethics training on the door to his office on Sept. 14, 2006. He received this certificate after he thought he successfully completed the mandatory statewide online ethics training.

On Nov. 27, 2006, he received a letter from the Office of the Inspector General of the State of Illinois. According to the letter, he failed to “carefully read and review the subject matter” contained in the program, as he had taken just over six minutes to complete the online training. His Certificate of Completion and his record of compliance had been invalidated.

In addition to this letter, Zeman received another ethics training program for “noncompliant employees,” including a certification form.

The letter stated failure to “properly comply with this annual training requirement will result in disciplinary action, up to including termination of state employment,” with a Jan. 19 deadline.

“There was no time given, it was made up after the fact,” said Zeman. “What they said was ‘we didn’t tell you about it, but you failed.'”

Zeman and the SIU faculty association filed a lawsuit in the 7th judicial circuit court in Saginaw County on Tuesday. The suit seeks to bar James A. Wright, the Illinois inspector general, from imposing a minimum time for the ethics test; from imposing discipline on those who failed to utilize the mandatory minimum of time; and to respect the collective bargaining agreement in section 20-40 of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.

Section 20-40 reads, “any investigation or inquiry by an Executive Inspector General or any agent or representative of an Executive Inspector General must be conducted with awareness of the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement.”

The punishment is arbitrary and lacking in due process, Zeman said.

“They can’t just fire you,” he said. “Even if I did something wrong, the punishment must fit the crime.”

On Dec. 15, 2006, John Bambenek, University employee and previous employee for the Illini Media Company, received a similar letter to Zeman’s, reading that he must properly complete the noncompliant training packet after spending “only 8.78” minutes on initial training. He was required to submit it to his ethics officer no later than Feb. 2, which was five days ago. As of publication, he has not received disciplinary action.

All public employees in Illinois, including University professors, are required to take online ethics training.

“There are 36,000 University of Illinois employees, and approximately 2,400 of them have received notification that they completed the test too quickly,” said University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy.

“I haven’t heard of any employees to be terminated,” he added.

Bambenek has since filed a federal lawsuit over 15 civil rights violations against the state of Illinois.

“In this case, the violation of ethics training does not include termination,” Bambenek said. “People know not to steal, know not to take bribes,” he said, the content of this test is “pretty simple stuff.”

Bambenek said the contents of the test are the same every year.

“The emphasis is not on the questions answered, but on the careful reading of the material,” said Gilbert Jimenez, state deputy inspector general.

“There are changes in the training program every year,” he continued, “No one can read 80 pages in 10 minutes.”

The first screen in the training reads that the training should take 30-60 minutes, Jimenez said.

When asked about a professor in ethics and law being notified of invalidation, Jimenez said “the people who need ethics training the most are usually the ones that think they know everything.”

The inspector general’s office was created to prevent corruption in government, Bambenek said, adding the inspector general should be inspecting fraud and abuse but instead “is holding a stop watch.”