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Email from head of Maryland’s university system promoting Pandora bracelets led to ethics queries

Associated Press

The email from Maryland's university system chancellor promoting a jewelry company's charm bracelets was so unusual, it prompted a top Virginia university official to write to an aide to Chancellor Robert Caret, questioning its authenticity.

The 2017 email also triggered a chain of events that led to a grievance over alleged retaliation by Caret and a settlement signed by the chancellor, according to emails and documents obtained by the Associated Press.

In a recent interview Caret acknowledged that he was wrong to send the email, but added that he did not consider it a significant ethical lapse.

"It's something I shouldn't have done. We all stumble," Caret said.

The university system's Board of Regents called a special meeting late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the incidents relating to Caret's email, after an anonymous letter about what happened in 2017 was sent last month to several state legislators, as well as the current chair of the board, Linda Gooden. The meeting was closed to the public to discuss a personnel matter. Gooden said in an interview after the meeting it was largely held to refresh recollections of the events.

Gooden, who became chair in November, said the board decided in 2017 to make ethics a part of Caret's annual job performance review, after it learned of the email he sent.

"The Board of Regents acted appropriately with respect to the chancellor, and to insure there was no reoccurrence we made it part of his annual review," Gooden said.

The chancellor, whose base salary is $630,000 a year, works with the Board of Regents to set goals for the state's 12 public universities.

In the Aug. 8, 2017, email to three university presidents, Caret said he was writing "on behalf" of an alumnus, the CEO of Pandora Jewelry. Caret, who has been chancellor since 2015, wanted to make them aware of an opportunity offered by the company, whose North and South American headquarters are in Baltimore. Caret told the officials — who run universities that aren't under Caret's authority — that it related to university logo-branded charm bracelets. He described the jewelry as "particularly popular among the college age and older."

"The CEO (the alum) has become a good friend of mine and he asked if I could share this opportunity with you," Caret wrote, adding that the University of Maryland was about to move forward on it.

In the email, which he signed "Chancellor, University of MD System," Caret added: "If you have any interest I would suggest that you forward this onto either your director of athletics, or alumni, or whoever it may be on your campus that deals with licensing and branding opportunities."

Then-University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan wondered whether the email was a scam, and if someone might have been trying to fraudulently induce her to reveal personal information.

"I asked about the authenticity of the email because I was concerned that Bob Caret's email account had been hacked or spoofed, or that I was being phished," Sullivan wrote in a recent email to the AP.

Sullivan emailed Caret's chief of staff at the time, Janice Doyle.

When Doyle asked Caret about it, he emailed back that he had sent the message from his gmail account.

Doyle later said in a written grievance that when she considered it in the context of two Paul McCartney tickets Caret received in 2016 from Scott Burger, then president of Pandora Americas, and an invitation to the 2017 Johns Hopkins Golf Classic, she became concerned about ethics.

Burger stepped down in January 2018. Based in Denmark, Pandora was founded in 1982 and has annual sales of about $3.5 billion. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Doyle spoke to an assistant state attorney general, who advised her to tell Caret to talk to then-Board of Regents Chairman James Brady, according to a timeline Doyle included in her grievance. And she contacted Brady herself.

Brady, who resigned last year, says now that he "understood that this was on the fringes of an ethics violation, and I proceeded accordingly," by raising the issue with officials at the state Ethics Commission, the Board of Regents and the attorney general's office. Brady said there was no sense that Caret was being paid by the company — that he was only introducing a Maryland company to other university presidents.

"Was it handled spectacularly well? No, it was not, but there was nothing more to it than that," Brady said in a recent interview.

Doyle, who served as chief of staff in the chancellor's office for more than 10 years, persistently wrote Caret to ask whether he spoke with Brady about the email. Caret wrote back: "No. I talked with the head of the Ethics Commission and told him how it happened and they said it was not a problem." He added, "So I dropped it."

Michael Lord, executive director of the ethics commission, said in an interview that any ethics advice provided to officials is confidential, and the panel does not comment on matters of advice. Caret says Lord told him not to do it again.

After Doyle continued urging Caret to talk to Brady, Caret sent Doyle a job performance assessment, noting, "I do have recent concerns relative to appropriate confidentiality and allegiance to the Chancellor in your role as Chief of Staff."

Several days later, Doyle told Brady she planned to file a grievance against Caret "regarding the recent retaliatory actions or possible additional retaliatory actions in response to my request that Bob talk to you about a possible ethics violation."

A day later, Caret wrote to Doyle that after giving the matter more thought he removed the negative comment in her job performance. Doyle filed the grievance the next day, and in November 2017, Doyle agreed to a settlement, signed by Caret.

The settlement called for Doyle to remain in her job until Dec. 31, 2017, and beginning in January 2018, she would be assigned alternate duties until March 31, 2018, while receiving her previous salary. She also received $60,087 as compensation for what she would have earned for the period of April through June 30, 2018.

Caret said he felt Doyle was "undermining" him by going outside of the office on multiple occasions to discuss matters that should have been left in the chancellor's office, though he said he did not retaliate against her.

But Doyle, in an interview, said she only kept asking about the Pandora matter because she was urged to do so by Brady and an assistant attorney general.

"I believe that the regents were told about the Chancellor's possible ethics violation, but I don't know if they knew about the Chancellor's retaliatory actions against me and the subsequent settlement," Doyle said in a statement. "However, I think the matter raises concerns regarding the board's oversight over the Chancellor's performance and the lack of sufficient accountability and transparency in the way it operates."

Asked about Doyle, Gooden said she could not comment on personnel matters.

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