Howard University’s rough year just got a bit rougher: Two lawsuits filed against the university in the past month allege whistleblower retaliation and discrimination. The lawsuits follow months of bad press due to financial struggles, accusations of mismanagement, low enrollment figures, a credit downgrade, and staff cuts, culminating in university President Sidney Ribeau‘s announcement last week that he would step down at the end of the calendar year.
The first lawsuit was filed on Sept. 13 by Tyrone Pitts, who has worked at Howard since 1998. According to the suit, Pitts, who was then assistant treasurer of the university, was instructed by his supervisors to stop doing any work on tax issues, which would thenceforth be handled by the consulting firm Urish Propeck. The suit alleges that Howard Chief Financial Officer Robert Tarola “had a prior and/or existing relationship with Urish Propeck, one that Plaintiff believes created a conflict of interest.” Tarola is not an employee of the university, but rather is paid as a consultant through Right Advisory, a firm of which he is president.
Pitts also filed an internal complaint of racial discrimination, after which, according to the lawsuit, he was transferred to the payroll department and told by Howard Executive Vice President James “Jimmy” Jones that if he didn’t accept the transfer, he would be fired. Pitts’ position was then changed again, “in retaliation for Mr. Pitts’s threat that he would possibly engage in whistleblowing regarding the financial mismanagement he had observed,” according to the lawsuit.
The second lawsuit, filed on Sept. 25, also alleges retaliation for whistleblowing and discrimination. Linda Clay, who worked at Howard as a benefits analyst starting in 2006, reported what appeared to be several fraudulent pay stubs, bearing the name of a person who did not work at Howard but the employee number of another employee in the human resources department, according to the suit. Clay reported the apparently fraudulent stubs to Jones, who said he’d handle the situation. But Clay was concerned he didn’t intend to take any action and reported the incident to Howard’s internal auditor. At that point, Jones allegedly told Clay, “I need to know which side you’re on” and that she “bet on the wrong team.”
“Defendant Jones then said ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,'” the lawsuit states. “Ms. Clay understood ‘Vegas’ to refer to the HR Department at Howard. Based on this conversation, it was Ms. Clay’s understanding that Defendant Jones was highly displeased that Ms. Clay had involved the Internal Auditor, calling ‘outside’ attention to the paystub issue.” Jones then allegedly told Clay that her position had been abolished and assigned her a new position, which she considered a demotion. With her career advancement in jeopardy and her work environment hostile, Clay resigned in August, according to the lawsuit.
These lawsuits join a third one, filed on April 23, that also alleges retaliation and discrimination. The plaintiff, Jeannette Frett, claims a hostile work environment in which her boss, Jones, made sexist jokes, discriminated against dark-skinned black employees like herself, and frequently referred to himself as the H.N.I.C., meaning “Head Nigger in Charge,” a term Frett found offensive. After she reported her complaints, Frett alleges, she was placed on administrative leave and then fired.
“The thing that ties all of the cases together is that you can see, at least in these instances, that when an employee brings to light mismanagement, waste, and fraud, the university retaliates,” says Sharon Eubanks, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in all three cases. Eubanks says the three plaintiffs all approached her individually. According to Eubanks, Pitts resigned today.
Howard spokewoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton declined to comment because the cases are “open litigation matters.”
The lawsuits not only mean more headaches for the troubled university, but may shed some light on some of its financial struggles. The Frett and Clay cases both point to Howard’s reliance on expensive outside consultants for work that could have been done by university employees. “During his tenure at Howard University, despite his professional and personal relationship with PRM Consulting Group, Defendant-Jones managed a $500,000 no-bid contract between Howard University and PRM Consulting Group,” the Frett lawsuit states. “During his tenure at Howard University, Defendant-Jones also diverted business to PRM Consulting Group that could have been performed more cost effectively by current Human Resources staff at Howard University.”
According to the lawsuits, Howard terminated Jones with cause in 2012. Jones could not be reached for comment.
The Frett lawsuit also alleges that the negligence and incompetence of another senior Howard official led to a potential $9 million liability for the university.
Should the United States District Court for the District of Columbia rule against Howard, it won’t help the university’s finances. The plaintiffs all seek back pay, front pay, lost benefits, compensation for legal costs, interest, and damages in the suits. Eubanks says no date has been set for any of the hearings.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery