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UNM affair, policy hit a sour note

Bradley Ellingboe conducts in the UNM/Santa Fe Opera's production of "Shoes for Santo Nino" in December 2011. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Bradley Ellingboe conducts in the UNM/Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Shoes for Santo Nino” in December 2011. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This story has been updated to include Bradley Ellingboe’s correct salary. The inaccurate salary was provided by the school.

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Bradley Ellingboe had a melodic public life. He was front and center in the choral world, a well-known name among musicians and singers at the University of New Mexico, around the state and the world.

He was knighted by the king of Norway for his work in sharing the country’s music and was named the faculty favorite at the university in 2008.

But his 30-year UNM career collapsed in June after an intense affair with a UNM Foundation employee exploded, resulting in a 1,000-page harassment investigation report and setting fire to the rumor mill in the university’s music program as the two left their jobs.

The investigation found that Ellingboe, who made $88,185 a year, falsified a travel document to get reimbursed for a private trip and used his work computer to send and receive hundreds of inappropriate sexual images, with many of them sent to the foundation employee, Samantha Starr.

STARR: Challenged “consensual” relationships

STARR: Challenged “consensual” relationships

But Ellingboe – who triggered the investigation when he claimed Starr was harassing him – was cleared of any sexual harassment allegations because the disastrous affair was consensual.

School investigators also say the relationships they believe he had with two of his former students and another professor were also consensual – relationships Ellingboe denied having.

The investigation began at the same time the university approved a new policy that frowns on – but doesn’t ban – consensual romantic relationships between colleagues, or faculty and students, or supervisors and their employees.

Starr, who was not under Ellingboe’s authority, is critical of the school’s new policy, contending that it doesn’t go far enough in protecting students from sexual exploitation by professors.

She says she was trying to raise that issue when she contacted Ellingboe’s students, urging them to file complaints against him. But school investigators looking into Ellingboe say she was harassing him, his wife and his former students, even creating a fake email account.

The school provided the Journal with the UNM Office of Equal Opportunity’s final report on the investigation, and its nearly 1,000 pages of texts and emails that document the death spiral of Ellingboe’s relationship with Starr and the university he loved.

Soured relationship

In November 2012, the two married colleagues working together raising funds for the university’s College of Fine Arts ventured into an affair.

Between 2002 and 2015, Ellingboe raised nearly $1 million for the UNM Choral Music program, his attorney Karen Mendenhall said.

Ellingboe, now 57, wrote a letter of reference for Starr, now 42, as she advanced at the UNM Foundation to senior director of development for fine arts. Investigators later determined that Starr landed her promotion on her own merit, not as a result of Ellingboe’s letter.

But after about two years, the relationship soured.

In April 2014, Ellingboe, then the director of choral affairs, broke off the relationship, though the two continued to work together in fundraising.

That’s when he says Starr started harassing him, his wife and his students.

The Office of Equal Opportunity did not investigate Starr but was critical of some of her actions in its final report.

It says Starr sent “multiple threatening emails” to Ellingboe and his wife, and tried to “manipulate” students into “voicing concerns” about Ellingboe.

Starr says she was trying to alert school officials to what she felt was Ellingboe’s predatory behavior with some of his former students and says she participated in the OEO investigation as a confidential witness after investigators contacted her.

“It can be tempting for faculty to rationalize a sexual relationship with a student as being ‘consensual,’ ” she said in a written statement to the Journal. “However, these relationships can never truly be considered consensual when students believe that their academic or professional careers may be impacted based on whether they say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ”

When students started contacting Ellingboe and saying Starr was harassing them, he went to his dean, Kymberly Pinder, and his human resources department.

Ellingboe said Pinder directed him to talk to the human resources department at the foundation, which he did.

“The next thing I knew, I was being investigated by Internal Audit and the person in question (Starr) was no longer working for the Foundation,” Ellingboe said in a statement.

Emailed sexual images

The internal audit found that he inappropriately sent and received at least 442 sexual images from the Internet and emails on his university-issued computer – which he wiped of data before turning it in to the school’s investigators.

His attorney Mendenhall said Ellingboe removed the hard drive on his work laptop to protect student information, not to prevent investigators from looking into his use of the computer, noting that he admitted using his work email inappropriately.

The internal audit also found that Ellingboe used university funds to pay for a plane ticket to Austin, then made up a flier to make it seem as if it had been a school business trip.

Ellingboe repaid the university $350 for the ticket.

Ultimately, Ellingboe was placed on suspension without pay in the middle of the 2015 spring semester for these violations.

Rumors flew. One person claiming to be a student in the department sent an anonymous letter to the Journal asking for help in getting answers to why Ellingboe and Starr left their posts.

But the story wasn’t over.

No sexual harassment

The internal auditors reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity that they were concerned that other university policies – those regarding sexual harassment – might have been violated. That triggered the OEO investigation in December 2014.

That investigation concluded in March 2015, finding that Ellingboe’s sexual interaction with Starr was consensual.

The report also said investigators found it “more likely than not” that Ellingboe consensually “engaged in conduct of a sexual nature” with at least three other people, including two of his former students, one of whom he awarded a scholarship to, and a professor on whose tenure committee he served.

Ellingboe adamantly denies he engaged in sexual contact with anyone but Starr.

In the end, no sexual harassment was found. And Ellingboe was not found to have created a stressful work environment or given preferential treatment to anyone, according to the report.

“At no time was the mission of the Music Department or the College of Fine Arts compromised,” Fine Arts Dean Pinder said in a statement. “Our students, who are frequently recognized for their excellence at local, regional and national competitions, regularly continue their education at some of the country’s top-ranking music schools and conservatories … .”

UNM careers end

Ellingboe said in a letter to investigators that Steven Block, the music department chair, told him the school would accept his resignation.

Instead, he said chose to retire in June.

“After Professor Ellingboe’s retirement, the vocal-choral area added an interim instructor, Juan Hernandez, to direct the University Chorus and the Concert Choir,” Block said in a statement to the Journal. “The UNM University Chorus, a 100-person choir comprised of community members, continues to thrive as it prepares for concerts in November and a Christmas Concert in December. The Vocal-Choral Program at the University of New Mexico is one of the most outstanding and dynamic voice programs in the Southwestern United States. The program continues to do astonishing work and includes seven choirs with over 400 members. The UNM voice faculty is committed to producing outstanding singers and training capable voice teachers.”

Meanwhile, Starr took a very brief job as executive director at the Central New Mexico Community College Foundation. It is not clear when or why she left.

The UNM Foundation would not discuss Starr’s departure, when she left or why.

“The UNM Foundation is not subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act. Despite that, we attempt to be as transparent as possible regarding matters of public interest,” the foundation said in a statement. “Out of respect for our employees and their privacy, we cannot provide any comment on employee specific personnel matters.”

Ellingboe and Starr spoke to the Journal only through their attorneys.

Ellingboe says he has moved on, and is writing two books on choral conducting and continuing to compose music.

“I am proud of the thousands of students we educated in my time at UNM. Many have gone on to distinguished careers in music, and many more continue to keep musicmaking central to their enjoyment of a fuller life,” he said in a statement. “I enjoyed decades long friendships with faculty, staff and administrators there, and wish them all well in the future.”

Starr, through her attorney Pia Gallegos, declined to say where she is working now or how she has fared.