HALE – The superintendent of Hale Area Schools (HAS) is facing one felony count of eavesdropping, which is punishable by up to two years of incarceration and/or fines of $2,000.
HAS Superintendent Loren Ellsworth Vannest, 57, South Branch, is set for a probable cause conference in 81st District Court on Tuesday, April 24, at 10 a.m.
A warrant was authorized by Iosco County Prosecuting Attorney Gary Rapp on March 23 and, according to the Michigan State Police (MSP), Vannest turned himself in on March 28 and posted bond.
HAS Attorney Robert G. Huber, of Thrun Law Firm, advised that on Dec. 18, 2017, the HAS Board of Education placed Vannest on paid administrative leave, following allegations that he had recorded a closed session meeting of the board in a manner contrary to Michigan law.
Court documents reveal that the HAS Board of Education convened on Dec. 18 of last year to hear testimony from several parties regarding a formal complaint which had been filed against Vannest by the parent of a student.
The meeting was called into closed session, using the appropriate protocols, so as to allow for the witnesses to speak freely with the board.
Vannest was the first witness interviewed and, following his testimony, board members allegedly discovered that he had left his cellular device in the room, after he had been excused from the closed-door meeting.
The statement in support of complaint for warrant document reads that further inquiry by members of the board led to the discovery that Vannest had used his cellular device to audio record the meeting.
The board contacted their attorney, who immediately asked that law enforcement be contacted.
MSP troopers responded to the scene, where they took initial statements and gathered the phone for evidence.
A download of the phone, via a search warrant, was conducted and the suspected recording was allegedly located.
Authorities note that the recording begins as the meeting is called into a closed session. None of the recording takes place during the “open” portion of the meeting.
Vannest’s phone was allegedly left in the room, recording the testimony of witnesses and board members’ questions to those witnesses.
The statement in support reads that it is believed that Vannest intentionally left the device in the room to record/eavesdrop on the conversation and testimony of the witnesses and teachers who were called in for the complaint filed against him.
When police interviewed Vannest, he allegedly stated that he felt the recording was gathered by himself in error.
Vannest allegedly admitted that he started the recording, but thought he was stopping it at the beginning of the closed meeting – not starting it.
Authorities state that there were no other recordings on Vannest’s device, prior to the suspected recording.
A press release on the matter was issued by the HAS attorney. He advised that, following investigation of the incident by the MSP, the Iosco County Prosecutor’s office authorized felony criminal charges against Vannest for allegedly violating Michigan’s eavesdropping laws.
“At the present time, Mr. Vannest remains in his capacity as the Superintendent of Schools on an unpaid administrative leave pending the outcome of criminal charges,” Huber stated.
He added that HAS Board of Education President Valerie Cryderman – who was present with other board members at the time the alleged activity occurred – has been continuously updated during the investigative process.
“I want to assure members of our school community that the astute observations of one or more board members enabled the board to secure the recording device and turn it over to law enforcement officials. This prompt action prevented the release or improper use of any private information concerning students, parents or staff,” Cryderman shared.
“Due to the pendency of criminal proceedings, we have been advised by our school attorney not to discuss or make further comments about this matter as the criminal case proceeds,” she went on.
According to Cryderman, Vannest’s duties will be assumed by the district’s business manager, Michael Boensch, and Hale High School Principal Michael Bowman, until the criminal matter is resolved and Vannest’s future employment status is determined.
Huber stated that the board will consider Vannest’s employment status with the district following disposition of the criminal matter.