Defense questions school board’s unchecked, apparent violation of Illinois Open Meetings Act

URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — After nearly four years, an attempted eavesdropping case involving a former Urbana school administrator came to a close with a bench trial and immediate sentencing, lasting less than an hour Thursday morning at the Champaign County Courthouse.

Former Urbana Assistant Superintendant Samuel Byndom was ordered to 90 days of court supervision for attempting to eavesdrop on an Urbana Board of Education meeting in October 2018. Byndom will also be required to complete 30 hours of community service and pay a $1,500 fine.

Judge Benjamin Dyer noted “his conduct has already cost him his job, has damaged his reputation” before handing down the ruling.

The case dates back to a school board meeting on October 28, 2018, when prosecutors say Byndom used a concealed voice-activated recorder pen to try to record at least a portion of a closed school board meeting without consent. Illinois law requires consent from every person who was in that room for a recording to be legal.

“Despite my intention of wanting to bring to light and expose elements that I thought were unjust within the school district, there were much better ways to go about that,” Byndom said addressing the judge.

“I deeply regret and feel as though this is something that would never happen again.”

At the time of the eavesdropping charge, then superintendent Don Owen was under fire in the community after rolling out a new disciplinary policy.

Tina Whobrey was a teacher in the Urbana school district back then. She said she also worked with the district as a consultant years prior and taught in Champaign before eventually returning to Urbana as a teacher in 2017. Whobrey is also the parent of an Urbana student and the lone spectator in Thursday’s courtroom, filled with emotion as she recalled her days with the district in 2018.

“There was clear data that our kids were not being served by our school district,” she said in support of Owen’s updated policy.

“The level of pushback against a system that would benefit all of our students was enraging.”

Owen and Byndom were placed on leave following the October board meeting, and eventually, became two of three top administrators replaced by the end of 2018.

Byndom’s attorney Steve Beckett said his client’s employment was being called into question during a closed session at a late September board meeting.

“And not only was it not recorded, they didn’t even create minutes of the meeting,” Beckett said, referring to an apparent violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Prosecuting attorney Troy Lozar said he “believes the school board was required” to record that meeting.

In an email response Thursday, Urbana Board of Education President Paul Poulosky said, “The closed session meeting on September 24, 2018 was inadvertently not recorded. We thought the device was turned on, and it wasn’t. No action was performed by the board at the conclusion of that meeting.”

Poulosky was not at the helm in 2018. The president at the time was John Dimit, who presided over the board for 33 years, according to his website.

Beckett claimed the board’s failure to record at least a portion of the September meeting is “what led to this.

The defense claimed Byndom “expected to be called to the October 28, 2018 closed session meeting, and was concerned this would make him complicit in a violation of the open meetings action…” The text can be found in a denied Motion in Limine filed on January 5, 2022, far exceeding the statute of limitations for any violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Beckett says Byndom never filed an official complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Lozar declined to go on camera Thursday but told reporters that the defense’s claim “attempts to point the fingers at others.” In a January 6 response to the defendant’s Motion in Limine, Lozar said this case was a “relatively simpler question” of whether Byndom eavesdropped.

The defense has called this case “spy versus spy,” referring to the district IT employee who reported the original Email that exposed Byndom for allegedly purchasing the recorder pen. Going on three years into the case, two Motion to Suppress hearings were held at the defense’s request. The court denied the suppression of evidence found in a search of the defendant’s Email, but granted the suppression of anything found on Byndom’s Google Drive that was “never on the [school district’s] network.”

Judge Dyer wrote in the April 21, 2021 Order that any search of Byndom’s Google Drive was “the product of an unreasonable search by a government actor in an investigatory capacity.”

Lozar said this case has been “a long road,” requiring a “significant investment” of resources. After the conclusion Thursday, he said Byndom had to see some consequence for a “significant violation of privacy.”

The board did “not have a comment on the disposition of Dr. Byndom’s case,” Poulosky said in his email.

Owen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Beckett said he will try to get Byndom’s record expunged, but that could take a couple of years.