URBANA — A Champaign County judge on Thursday found a former Urbana school administrator guilty of attempted eavesdropping for attempting to surreptitiously record a closed school board session with a “spy pen.”
Judge Ben Dyer’s conclusion that the state has presented sufficient evidence to convict Samuel Byndom, 38, of the offense ends a criminal case that began nearly four years ago amid internal disputes in the district on issues of discipline, hiring and diversity.
The carefully worded facts presented to Dyer on Thursday were the result of an agreement between Assistant State’s Attorney Troy Lozar and Byndom’s attorney, Steve Beckett of Urbana, to hold a stipulated bench trial. Much like a guilty plea, the parties agree on the evidence, but the defendant asks the judge to return a verdict of guilty or innocent and impose a sentence.
Calling the highly educated Byndom’s conduct “certainly below him,” the judge noted that Byndom believed he was justified in planting a “spy pen” during a school board closed session to record what he thought was his father’s speech. and the dismissals of other directors and a potentially illegal hiring audit.
Dyer said Byndom gained nothing from his action and felt Byndom’s remorse was genuine. The judge cited supporters who described Byndom as “driven, inspiring” and possessing a “warm and generous spirit”.
Former longtime Urbana School Board President John Dimit, whose testimony showed he asked former superintendent Don Owen if he would be willing to fire Byndom, even wrote a letter of support for him.
Dimit told the judge that Byndom had already suffered enough by losing his job and taking a hit to his reputation and there was no need to prolong that suffering.
“I agree,” said Dyer, who said the sentence should be proportionate to the crime and sentenced Byndom to three months of judicial supervision, 30 hours of public service and a $1,500 fine.
If Byndom carries out these conditions and has no problem with the law, no conviction will enter its file. Also, in two years, he can try to have the case expunged, which, if successful, would treat the case as if it never happened.
Although Thursday’s hearing only lasted about 30 minutes, it took years to get there.
Dyer was well acquainted with the internal drama of district politics and the mistrust between council members, administration and staff, having heard hours of testimony over four days in December 2020, February 2021 and February and March 2022 during motions pre-trial on what might and might not be presented to a jury at Byndom’s trial.
Witnesses included former school district employees, board members and Owen, the fired superintendent who settled his own lawsuit against the district without a trial for $100,000 a year ago.
Testimony revealed that Byndom was hired in August 2013 as the school district’s director of adult education and served in that role until his promotion in 2017 to assistant superintendent of learning and education. instruction under Owen.
Owen, who had worked for the Urbana School District for nearly 30 years, was placed on administrative leave by the school board in December 2018 and told about a month later that his contract would not be renewed. Offered a teaching job, Owen eventually quit in September 2019.
In a lawsuit Owen filed later in 2019 claiming he was wrongfully fired, he alleged the board fired him because he questioned the propriety of a audit the board had ordered to examine the hiring of several minority faculty and staff.
These people were hired to implement a “restorative justice” plan the board had in place in early 2018 to address disciplinary inequities and reduce racial disparity between students and staff.
However, their hiring prompted complaints from district staff and union members to board members that Owen and his firm were circumventing hiring practices.
In response to these complaints, the council has scheduled a surprise secret audit to examine how these employees were hired.
According to testimony, during a school board closed session on September 24, 2018, Dimit asked Owen if he would fire Byndom if asked by the board. Owen replied that he would fire anyone for cause, but said he had no reason to fire Byndom.
Later, it was discovered that no recording was made of this meeting and no minutes were generated when the performance of Owen, Byndom and another assistant superintendent was discussed.
Lozar said staff called the lack of check-in an oversight, the result of miscommunication between two employees, each thinking the other was handling the check-in.
Buying the pen
Beckett said after that September 2018 meeting, news of the secret hiring audit began circulating in the district and his client believed the superintendent and his assistants were going to be fired.
Byndom had informed the Champaign County branch of the NAACP of his concerns about the hiring audit, which had not been made public, but was told there had to be evidence of something that wasn’t. was wrong.
Suspicious of the board given the non-recording of its September closed session and believing it was gathering evidence of what could be an illegal race-based audit, Byndom decided to secretly tape the closed October council session.
He placed an order for a voice-activated recording device that looked like a pen from his district work computer.
However, three days before the board meeting, Kevin Erlinger, a district teacher and information technology coordinator who was among those criticizing the administration’s hires and Byndom, said he found in the Byndom’s personal email an order confirmation from a company called “SpyGuy”.
Erlinger said he found it while installing software updates on district computers and brought it to the attention of a council member rather than his own boss or the superintendent.
On October 28, 2018, when council adjourned in camera to discuss employment matters, an acceptable reason under the Open Meetings Act, a council member found the recording pen, removed it and continued the meeting.
Police were contacted and Byndom was charged with a criminal charge about two weeks later.
Lozar said the sentence Dyer gave Byndom on Thursday was an offer he made to Byndom much earlier if Byndom pleaded guilty. Byndom was unwilling to do so and instead asked the judge to make a finding based on the evidence.
“His subjective belief that it was justified (to tape a closed session) was not a legally approved reason to do so,” Lozar said. “The court rejected this argument at the end of our last hearing. The law doesn’t allow you to do this because there are so many alternative methods that could be used.
“The state’s goal from the beginning was to hold Dr. Byndom to some level of responsibility for his actions. In our opinion, there was a reluctance to accept any responsibility until recently.
When it was his turn to address the judge, Byndom expressed regret for his actions, which he said were motivated by “a desire to bring to light elements of injustice within the school district.”
“I know there are better ways,” he told Dyer, saying he hoped the judge would consider his other contributions in the form of his service in the Army and the Commission on Human Rights. Urbana’s human relations.
Beckett called the case “secretive and mistrustful.”
“Did Samuel screw up? Yes, he admits he screwed up. He could have walked into the meeting and said, “I’m going to tape you. None of this would have happened if everyone had been open,” he said.
Byndom, who was laid off by the Urbana School Board, now lives in San Antonio and runs a consulting business with his wife that focuses on issues such as inclusive leadership in the workplace, business organization and leadership. advice.