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    Did Univ of W.Ga. fire fund-raiser for complaints about gouging donors?

     

    By JIM WALLS

    The University of West Georgia may have violated whistleblower protection and open records laws, as well as state purchasing rules, a new state investigation suggests.

    James Naughton thinks so too. The former university official filed suit this week alleging he was fired for questioning his boss’s unauthorized hiring of a Washington lobbyist and misleading the school’s foundation in order to jack up fees charged to donors.

    Ruffner

    Naughton, an assistant vice president for fund-raising and alumni relations, was fired Feb. 17 at the end of his six-month probationary period. A month earlier, Naughton had shared concerns about his boss, Michael Ruffner, with the foundation’s executive committee, which took them up with university president Beheruz Sethna.

    An April 8 investigative report by the state University System’s chief auditor offered no legal conclusion, but raised questions about the timing of Naughton’s dismissal by Ruffner, the school’s vice president for university advancement (VPUA):

    “Mr. Naughton’s first documented employee counseling that raised concerns with his behavior was scheduled within just a few days after the VPUA was made aware of Mr. Naughton having raised potential malfeasance concerns concerning the VPUA to the UWG Foundation Executive Committee. Additionally, several of the behaviors noted in the counseling were from several months prior to the counseling session and were not previously documented. One of the performance concerns previously had been disregarded by the VPUA. Based on the information we reviewed, the University should consult with USG legal counsel regarding the possibility that the USG Ethics Policy and/or the Georgia Whistleblower Act was violated.

    Ruffner had told the foundation’s board in 2009 that tripling its administrative fee — from 1 percent to 3 percent of the school’s endowment — would bring it in line with comparable foundations. Naughton investigated the matter after a potential donor complained about the fee.

    The auditor’s investigation cited a 2010 University of Georgia survey that found similar fees in the Southeast Conference range from 0.35 to 1.5 percent, although some charge an additional fee on non-endowed gifts.

    The higher fees were needed primarily to cover the cost of hiring a Washington lobbyist to secure more federal earmarks for the university, the auditor found.

    Ruffner had already signed the lobbying contract on behalf of the university, rather than the foundation, in violation of state law, which requires competitive bidding, the investigation found.

    Naughton’s lawsuit claims Ruffner hired Patton Boggs, a high-powered Washington lobbying firm, in January 2009 to seek federal earmarks for the university. Once Ruffner realized procurement rules barred him from paying the lobbyist with public funds, the suit alleges, he persuaded the school’s foundation to take over the obligation.

    Patton Boggs has billed the foundation for about $250,000, the suit alleges. (UPDATE: Data compiled by OpenSecrets.org shows U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss co-sponsored $350,000 in earmarks for the university in FY2010.)

    (A sidenote: Ruffner tangled later that year with then-state Rep. Mark Butler over the firing of another in-house lobbyist, Erin Henderson. Butler, now Georgia’s labor commissioner, claimed Ruffner had lied to him about his plans for Henderson, with whom the legislator had a personal relationship.)

    Later, in December 2010, Ruffner and others ordered a university official to withhold portions of bank statements that had been requested under the Georgia Open Records Act, the auditor’s investigation found. The probe found that other university employees contributed to that decision through “an extremely aggressive interpretation” of the records request.

     

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    2 Responses to “Did Univ of W.Ga. fire fund-raiser for complaints about gouging donors?”

    1. GTP says:

      Our former colleague was also fired following her bringing a major “conflict of interest” regarding the president at Macon State College and the college’s Foundation. We encourage someone to ask Georgia’s new Attorney General Sam Olens why he “pledges to strengthen Sunshine laws” in our media, while at the same time his office continues to legally seal critical documents in this Georgia Whistleblower Protection Act case which outlines further alleged serious ethical and fiscal violations by top officials in the Board of Regents.
      Georgia Whistleblower Protection Act case – Georgia Court of Appeals Docket No. A11A0392, Fulton County Superior Court 2009CV165267.
      A request by the media or a Georgia taxpayer to have Attorney General Sam Olens open these sealed files for the public’s right-to-review will be proof that Olens’s actions speak much louder than just his words in recent news articles: One at: http://jacksonville.com/news/georgia/2011-02-25/story/attorney-general-pledges-strengthen-sunshine-laws
      While you are asking Olens, also request Open Records to determine the amount of our tax dollars spent, thus far, in defending these Board of Regents in these violations.

    2. April Antoniou says:

      This is an outrage!!! I am a 4.0 UWG non-traditional student (32 years old) who has, thanks to those that “saved” the HOPE scholarship, now lost any chance of receiving HOPE myself because I graduated high school more than seven years ago. This is wrong on so many levels; because the school has cut the funding I figured into my cost-benefit analysis f going back to school. My husband works graveyard and rushes home so I can get to school. I told him if we could just make it through one year, I could get the scholarship and use my student loans to help make ends meet (i.e. pay rent). If UWG is getting earmarks, it ‘aint going to the students as they have cut off 90% of their additional scholarship programs as of this fall semester. Corruption and greed in a school is the antithesis of noble and just behavior; It completely undermines the integrity of the people going into debt to say they graduated from such a place.

      The way the school system functions needs to be completely overhauled. We need to create more open competition and have the parents and students have a say in how any school money is spent if that school receives any Congressional Funds.

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