Attorney: Former Kentucky State University official plans to sue under whistleblower act

Published 5:42 am Thursday, September 23, 2021

Attorney for the former staff regent and administrative assistant at Kentucky State University who was fired shortly after criticizing the school’s board says that his client intends to sue the school.

Mike Augustus, an attorney at Bolus Law Group, told The State Journal that his client Chandee Felder will soon sue the school for wrongful termination. He added that he believes the termination constitutes a “pretty clear violation” of the state whistleblower act.

The school, in an email from the office of Acting President Clara Stamps to members of campus staff and faculty, seemed to disagree.

The email also characterized Felder’s testimony to The State Journal as “self-serving.” The information Felder provided to the newspaper centered around her criticism of the school’s board of regents — of which she was a member — in the wake of major financial issues revealed this summer.

“On Friday, September 17, there were three front-page stories critical of Kentucky State University,” the email read. “The stories heavily relied on self-serving assertions and information from a former employee and staff regent terminated for cause.”

The cause in this case, per Felder’s termination, was for an alleged violation of the school’s HR policy and ethics code as well as “gross misconduct.” The human resources’ letter to Felder indicates that the administration believes she did not conduct herself “in a manner that will maintain the public’s trust in the integrity of the university.”

Augustus characterized Felder’s firing as a punishment for perceived disloyalty.

“It appears to me that, essentially, they’re saying that she wasn’t loyal to the university,” Augustus said. “I think that’s exactly what she was trying to be — maybe not loyal to any individual members of the board or individual administrators, but she was being loyal to the university, she was being loyal to the students, and she was being loyal to the taxpayers.”

The president’s email goes on to explain the The Kentucky Whistleblower Act, later emphasizing that disclosures to the press

“Disclosure protected under the statute must be made to an ‘appropriate body’ with the ‘authority to remedy’ the perceived misconduct,” it reads. “Furthermore, the court specifically held that any disclosures made to the press, even with the intent to bring forth wrongdoing to light, would not be subject to protection under KRS 61.102 because the news media is not an appropriate body within the meaning of the statute.”

However, Augustus argues that Felder did make her disclosures to an “appropriate body” when she reached out to various members of the board in private about the financial issues as early as February 2020. By former K-State President M. Christopher Brown II’s resignation, the issue had ballooned into a “$15 million problem,” according to new KSU Chief Financial Officer Greg Rush.

University of Kentucky College of Law professor Scott Bauries said that any ruling on whether or not Felder is protected by the state whistleblower law would likely come down to the determination of whether those she reached out to are considered appropriate bodies and what she disclosed to them.

Felder had reached out to several board members about financial issues, as well Gov. Andy Beshear and others.

Augustus has represented three other clients in recent cases against KSU, including the much-publicized Xavier Dillard case, which claims that the former student support services employee was fired for advocating on behalf of two students who had made sexual harassment complaints.

The attorney said that he felt like Felder has “a lot of support” among those at KSU.

“I feel that Chandee was doing the right thing,” Augustus said. “I think she has a lot of support in the school community and I think most of the people at Kentucky State see this termination for what it is.”

Discussion of issues surrounding Felder’s dismissal appears to be slated for a virtual KSU faculty meeting to be held on Friday at 11 a.m.

The Faculty Senate met last Friday in a tense meeting that included a lengthy back and forth between professors and General Counsel Lisa Lang regarding the legality of speaking about Felder’s situation. Lang said that it was inappropriate for the senate to speak of the “personnel issue and possible litigation,” in open session. Faculty Senate President Phillip Clay said that Acting President Clara Ross Stamps’ office informed him that no such discussion could take place without university media present.

Frank Lomonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, took issue with both Lang and Clay’s directives at that meeting.

“A state university has zero authority to tell faculty members that they’re not allowed to talk without a public relations representative from the university present. Unfortunately, there is an obsession with image and public relations across the field of higher education that has fostered a belief that P.R. people somehow have the authority to control what everyone on campus is allowed to say.”

Lomonte also called Lang’s comments “troubling.”

“Somehow it’s become ingrained throughout our culture that legal issues and personnel issues are off-limits for public discussion, but there’s no such requirement in the law. If faculty members want to convene a meeting to talk about their concerns about a personnel issue that might end up in court, they have an absolute right to do that. Even if those comments end up being strategically disadvantageous for the university — too bad.

“Personnel issues and legal issues are pretty foundational to the governance of any large government agency. If you forbid public discussion of anything involving personnel or anything that might result in a lawsuit, you’re preventing the community from having meaningful input into most of what the institution does.”

Lomonte called it “ironic” that the back and forth over what can and cannot be discussed took place during a discussion about whether the university has a culture of silencing whistleblowers.

“I think we may have our answer,” he added.