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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Former SCSU VP sues school

The former chief fund-raiser for South Carolina State University says the university retaliated against her, and stuck her in a make-work job, because she tried to expose wrongdoing.

Former Vice President for Institutional Advancement Mechelle English has sued the university, saying officials failed to act when she questioned the handling of a $200,000 check, the hiring of a lobbyist and the lease of vehicles for coaches.

University attorney Edwin Givens said S.C. State “has not taken any unlawful action against the plaintiff. It is the position of South Carolina State University that this lawsuit is without merit.

“South Carolina State University will file its formal response at the appropriate time; however, at this time the university has no further comment.”

University spokeswoman Erica Prioleau said President Andrew Hugine would have no comment beyond the university’s statement.

SCSU Board Chairman Maurice Washington says the university follows high ethical standards and the lawsuit is merely an attempt to tarnish its image.

“We’re running an institution that’s driven by integrity and we will continue to focus on what is required to continue to move the university forward. When you’re focused on what’s in the best interests of the university, things like this would be minor distractions,” he said.

English stepped into the position in January 2004, coming to S.C. State from the Trident Urban League Inc. in Charleston. As the university’s vice president of institutional advancement, she was in charge of fund-raising, alumni relations, development, news and communications, WSSB radio station and the SCSU Foundation.

She sued the university on March 1, saying she is entitled to actual and punitive damages, plus reinstatement to her job if it’s practical.

She says her problems began over a $200,000 payment a vendor made to S.C. State. She alleges that Hugine asked that the check be supplied directly to him, rather than the SCSU Finance Office, and that he held onto the check for nine months. She says he did not endorse or negotiate the check, but she still questions its handling.

In her complaint filed in the Orangeburg County Courthouse, English says she “became involved in this situation after defendant Hugine repeatedly directed her to open a bank account on behalf of the SCSU Advancement Foundation.” She says Hugine shouldn’t have been involved with the foundation because his salary supplement came from the funds, and he should have maintained his distance to avoid any conflict of interest.

She claims she told Washington about the incident, but because he and the board did not take “appropriate steps,” they created a sense Hugine was exempt from accountability.

Of that incident, Washington said, “I have no comment on that other than these allegations obviously will be given the opportunity to play themselves out in a court of law. The truth is something we will all look forward to at the end of the day.”

But he added, “Her rationale the president allegedly did something wrong is exactly that – alleged.”

English also claims that Hugine in 2006 “deliberately concealed a relationship with a lobbyist to prevent the SCSU Board of Trustees and the general public from becoming aware of this affiliation which, upon information and belief, was established to influence the outcome of an April 2006 trustee race.”

While English’s lawsuit does not name the lobbyist, the Associated Press reported in January that in 2006, Hugine hired Jerome Heyward for $12,500 from an account Hugine controls. While a contract called for Heyward to do lobbying work, he and Hugine said he did no lobbying. Lobbyists must be registered with the state, but Heyward was not listed as a lobbyist for S.C. State.

Heyward was involved in a scuffle with lobbyist Ray Corley last year, which Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said was over a board of trustees election. Cobb-Hunter said she was shoved into a wall and injured during the incident.

English says Washington knew about the lobbyist and did nothing.

Washington says the State Ethics Commission looked at the issue and found no reason to sanction the university. Herb Hayden, director of the Ethics Commission, did not return a call Monday.

English also claims that Hugine and Washington retaliated against her because she told them it was inappropriate for the university to lease automobiles for S.C. State coaches. The foundation entered into a three-year lease on behalf of the athletic department in December 2005, she says.

“Leasing private vehicles for the coaches for their own business and personal use represented a violation of Internal Revenue regulations because the value of the vehicles represents supplemental income to the employees and is taxable,” English says in her complaint.

English said she gave Hugine a legal opinion from a private attorney arguing against the leasing of vehicles for coaches, plus learned other university foundations were not taking the approach SCSU did. She says SCSU attorney Givens provided an opinion that was favorable to the university and contradicted the private attorney.

English said she then submitted a summary of the reasons behind the foundation’s proposal not to lease the vehicles and, on Oct. 24, Hugine ordered her to raise $50,000 by Dec. 31 to cover the cost of providing vehicles to the staff. If she did not raise the money, Hugine “would subject her to disciplinary action based on ’insubordination,’” she said.

“On Oct. 30, 2006, the plaintiff was relieved of her duties as vice president for institutional advancement and transferred to the Athletics Department in a make-work position. Thereafter, the term of her contract which had eight months remaining, was reduced to four months,” she claims in her complaint against SCSU.

Washington said the issue surrounding the cars “is a matter of interpretation. That’s a legal issue.” He received a copy of the complaint Saturday, and “I read it and I had no trouble whatsoever sleeping at night.”

“You have a situation here where a president has exercised in a very appropriate way his authority with an at-will employee,” Washington said.

The lawsuit does not bring Hugine’s character and integrity under any scrutiny whatsoever, and “the board will continue to support him as president of S.C. State.”


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