Report: Bungled coach firing shows MnSCU inquiry flaws

The state legislative auditor says the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system should rethink how it investigates personnel cases following its firing of Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner.

James Noble’s report, released Thursday, takes no stance on the dismissal of Hoffner, whose firing came after a court dropped child pornography charges against him. He’d had videos of his naked children on a work phone.

But it notes that a Minnesota State University – Mankato investigator conducted interviews that were not under oath and were not recorded. It also says she destroyed her interview notes after presenting her report to university leaders.

“I think everybody I’ve talked to about that finds that a bit troubling,” Nobles told MPR News.

Nobles states in the report, however, that after consulting officials in the state Attorney General’s Office and state Department of Management and Budget, he didn’t find much consensus on how state agencies carry out such investigations.

In an emailed statement, a MnSCU spokesperson agreed that “further assessment by the system of the approaches used is warranted to ensure that we are using best practices. We believe strongly that the fairness of investigation procedures is important to all involved in both the investigation and decision making processes.”

Hoffner’s attorney, Chris Madel, criticized the report, saying it didn’t provide enough detail for a full understanding of what happened.

In a letter at the end of the report, he called it a “hollow, partial recitation of the parties’ beliefs regarding how MSU Mankato treated Coach Hoffner.”

Hoffner was charged in 2012 with two child pornography counts after he recorded videos of his children dancing naked. A judge found they were innocent, and dismissed the charges.

Despite that ruling, the university fired Hoffner in 2013 for reasons it didn’t disclose.

After an arbitrator ruled in April that the university had no grounds to fire Hoffner, the university reinstated him as coach.

Lawmakers and MnSCU leaders then asked Nobles to look into the process the university used leading up to Hoffner’s firing.

Nobles’ report says Mankato President Richard Davenport fired Hoffner based on the university’s investigation into other allegations – ones beyond the child pornography charges.

The report does not list the allegations because of “data privacy considerations.” It says they did not involve a criminal act, but instead “involved either alleged violations of MnSCU policies and/or a concern about Coach Hoffner’s judgment.”

Although it questions the university investigator’s lack of notes and recorded sworn testimony, the report says it sees no connection between that and the state arbitrator’s decision to order Hoffner’s reinstatement.

“We bring the issue forth,” it states, “because investigative methods are important in ensuring fairness to all the people affected by the investigation, and because we found confusion and conflicts among the state officials we consulted about how interviews in personnel investigations are and should be conducted and documented.”

Madel, Hoffner’s attorney, says in his letter that he disputes the university’s account of events. He says the report doesn’t include Hoffner’s perspective of the investigation, and doesn’t go into the amount of money the university and MnSCU spent on the Hoffner case.

Without an analysis of their fiscal responsibility, Madel writes, “there can be no assessment by the Legislature of MSU Mankato and MnSCU’s effectiveness, let alone an assessment of how to promote effectiveness.”

The leaders of the state House and Senate higher-education committees say they hope to hold a hearing on the Hoffner case and discuss the report.

State Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, says he wants to know how MnSCU “is going to do things differently as a result of the mistakes that were made here.”

State Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka says she’s also considering legislation that would require outside parties to investigate personnel matters at state agencies.

Pelowski said the Mankato investigation is another example of MnSCU’s lack of transparency. He pointed to revelations this year in which system officials signed two agreements – the chancellor’s contract and a $2 million consulting contract – without formal approval from the board.

“These are huge issues,” he said. “Their inability to face up to them publicly and directly is troubling.”

Since the news of the contracts broke, trustees have laid out plans for more oversight.

Read the legislative auditor’s report: