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.
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.