U of M paid legal bills of former employee sanctioned over Dan Markingson case

Dan Markingson, 25, committed suicide in 2004.
Dan Markingson, 25, committed suicide in 2004.
Photo courtesy Mary Weiss.

The University of Minnesota wasn't a party in the recent sanction of a former employee over a controversial 2004 drug trial, but the same cannot be said about the school's pocketbook.

The U paid a total of $22,773 to cover a portion of Jean Kenney's legal bills in her case with the state Board of Social Work, City Pages learned through a data request. That breaks down to $18,909 for Kenney's attorney, and $3,864 to Dr. Frederic Reamer, an expert witness who testified on Kenney's behalf.

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In 2004, Kenney was the coordinator of an experimental drug study at the U, during which a subject, Dan Markingson, brutally committed suicide. Eight years later, the drug trial continues to be scrutinized by Markingson's mother and several bioethics faculty members at the college, who argue a series of ethical lapses contributed to Markingson's death.

The Board of Social Work's ruling against Kenney earlier this month was the first time any investigation has turned up wrongdoing on part of anyone who worked on the study. Though the ruling was explicitly labeled a "corrective action" -- as opposed to disciplinary action -- it identified a long list of errors on part of Kenney. According to the document, Kenney violated U of M policy, failed to disclose risks of the drug identified while the study was in progress, and "consistently fell below the minimum standards of practice for a clinical social worker."

Asked about Kenney's case last week, U of M General Counsel Mark Rotenberg kept a safe distance between the U and the ruling. An excerpt from his statement to City Pages:

"Jean Kenney is no longer an employee at the University of Minnesota and hasn't been for a number of years. The University was not a party in the Corrective Action -- that is a voluntary agreement between Ms. Kenney and the Minnesota Board of Social Work."

Though he didn't know the sums paid at the time of his statement, Rotenberg defends his comment, and points out that several investigations -- both internal and state -- have cleared the school in the past.

"I didn't know what our fees were in the case, but even if I had known, that statement's not false or misleading," he says. "The university is not a party and was not a party to the corrective action. And she decided whether she wanted to sign that voluntary agreement with the Board of Social Work or not, and the university had nothing to do with that."

Rotenberg says the U of M was obligated to cover a portion of Kenney's bills, citing a Regents policy -- "Legal Defense and Indemnification of Employees" -- that requires the school to help with the legal fees of a current or former employee, providing they "acted in good faith" and not in opposition to the best interests of the Regents.

But the U's financial involvement doesn't sit well with Mike Howard, a friend of Markingson's mother who initiated the Board of Social Work investigation against Kenney with a 2009 complaint.

"Maybe I'm just bias and everything else, but I guess I just don't believe they didn't have ulterior motives," says Howard.

As Howard point out, the policy would not apply in the event of "malfeasance in office or willful or wanton neglect of duty or other actions," according to the Regents.

"Where do you draw the line here?" he asks.

Read the full ruling against Kenney here.

Read expert witness Frederic Reamer's defense of Kenney below, which disputes many of the Board of Social Work's findings:

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