The Massachusetts attorney general's office is conducting an inquiry into Harvard's handling of last spring's Board of Overseers election in response to complaints that the University unfairly electioneered against pro-divestment candidates and tampered with the ballot count, officials in the state office said this week.
Although it could not be determined whether actions taken over the summer by the attorney general's office constituted what it terms an investigation, an official in the Division of Public Charities said that several individuals had been assigned to the "case."
A letter dated August 20 and signed by Leslie G. Espinoza, deputy director of the division, said that her office "has made and continues to make inquiries of Harvard University regarding the 1986 election of overseers." The letter was sent to alumni who filed a formal complaint with the attorney general in May.
The office has requested general information about the election, including ballot packets sent to alumni and vote counts, said Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54, who is the University official dealing with the attorney general's office. Steiner said Harvard has complied with the requests.
More than three months ago the alumni submitted the complaint to the attorney general charging that Harvard had unfairly campaigned against three candidates nominated by petition for a place on the election ballot for overseers. The three were running for the 30-member governing body on a platform calling on Harvard to divest of its holdings in companies that do business in South Africa.
The complaint said that a letter included in the official ballot mailing to alumni last spring constituted electioneering by the University because it urged alumni not to vote for the divestment candidates. The letter was signed by Joan T. Bok '51, then president of the overseers. But Harvard President Derek C. Bok later conceded that he had initiated the letter and that Joan Bok, who is no relation to the president, had only signed it.
The overseers technically review actions by the University's top governing body, the seven-man Corporation, of which Bok is a member.
The alumni also charged that Derek Bok, who admitted his involvement in the overseers controversy well after the first news stories on the subject had appeared, practiced "constructive fraud" by not informing the Harvard community that he had asked Joan Bok to write the letter.
Finally, alumni charged that Harvard may have tampered with the vote count in the election. Midway through the ballot-collecting process for the election--after the controversy had intensified--Harvard hired a Boston accounting firm, Coopers and Lybrand, to count the ballots. But the University had already received and opened a portion of the ballots, prompting the complaint that the count may have been skewed.
One of the divestment candidates, Gay W. Seidman '78, won election to the board.She and four other candidates, who were officialnominees of the University, gained seats on theboard, Harvard announced at Commencement.
The Harvard Case
Espinoza was named by the official in theattorney general's office as the person in chargeof the "Harvard case." Espinoza would not returnphone calls, and it could not be determinedexactly what the state prosecutor has sought tolearn from Harvard in the course of the inquiry.
The attorney general's office does not commentofficially on any inquiry or investigation. But aspokesman did say that investigations do notalways lead to a law suit.
"I think the attorney general has some realserious fraud to look into," said Steiner,dismissing the possibility that an investigationwas in progress.
Steiner said the University is confident thatthe election was lawful under statutes regulatingprocesses used to control charitable funds. Hesaid the inquiries by the attorney general'soffice "did not concern Harvard."
Vote Count Inquiry
One line of inquiry by the state office dealswith the charges of ballot tampering, according toa senior administrative official. The official,who asked not to be named, said that Harvard isseeking a letter from Coopers and Lybrand statingthat the same five candidates won in the pool ofballots received by Harvard at the beginning ofthe election as those received directly by theaccounting firm after it had taken over the ballotcount.
The alumnus who made the complaint about thevote count, Chester Hartman '57, said that such aletter from Coopers and Lybrand would notnecessarily convince him that the ballots were nottampered with. "I want to see the entire votedistribution," Hartman says