Housing Complex

Lawsuits Alleging Retaliation Compound Howard’s Woes

howard-1Howard 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

  • Julie Rones

    As an alumna, I continue to be disappointed with allegations concerning Howard University. I am very convinced that very strong leadership is needed to address the plethora of problems that appear to exist, at present and possibly threaten the very survival of the beloved institution.

    My list of potential successors includes Collin Powell, Michael Powell, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Anthony Williams, Michael C. Rogers, Robert C. Bob, John Hill.

  • Julie Rones

    I would like to add one more name for consideration of a new president for Howard University: William "Bill" Kennard. Former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. Well-respected attorney, administrator, high-dollar fundraiser and former partner with the Carlyle Group (strategic business development firm).

  • B

    I agree that there is a lack of strong leadership. Also as an alum, I think that something has to be done to call the Board of Trustees to task for what appears to be a continuing breach of fiduciary duty. I mean honestly, how much of this has been allowed to continue so long they maintained their role on that board. I hold them all responsible.

  • Dizzy

    Yea, within academia, Howard has long been known as part university and part money laundering/crony enrichment operation. Kind of like the DC government!

    What the Mecca needs right now is someone who knows how to run a university. I'm not exactly a big Condoleezza Rice fan, but she was the provost at Stanford and knows her way around academe. The real home run choice, imo, would be Freeman Hrabowski III. Dude is a rock star.

  • Typical DC BS

    You all have named some great choices for running Howard. Bravo. Any one of them would be outstanding.

  • Randy

    The Chairman of the Board is laughing at us (Howard Alum).
    He didn't attend an HBCU. He attended American/Stanford.
    He doesn't believe in Howard's mission: which is to solve
    problems in the African-American, and Global community.

    It is public knowledge that better salaried faculty have
    better morale. Better salaried faculty write more grants,
    write more books, create more innovations and are more
    competitive. More competitive faculty attracts way more
    competitive students (especially Graduate students). More
    competitive students make better Alumni who give back.

    Mr Randy knows all this. But he won't substantially
    raise faculty salaries at Howard because he believes that
    majority Euro-American universities are inherently
    superior to HBCU's. He is just a racist in Black-Face.
    He looks down on the very people he pretends to serve.
    He is just a fraud, who happens to be Chair of the Board.

  • Education Exploitation

    I wish I could say that this is unique to Howard or to higher education. It is not. People are trying to get as much much money as possible from schools, universities, school systems, etc. Education is not about making people rich. Follow the money. I bet if you examined the boards of these universities with the contracts, you would find plenty of conflicts of interest. WE as a nation should rise up and stop this mess!!! People need to go to jail and lose all of their belongs.

  • Pass the Baton

    The common variable over decades of mismanagement is the membership of the Board and some of the higher placed administrators. That's who hasn't changed. Students come and go. A qualified president has come and gone in under five years. Competent managers and directors come and then get the hell out of Howard.

    The long timers are subpar faculty and staff who can't get hired anywhere else, or people who stay there because it's like a "Good Government Job", i.e. no incentive to innovate, rewards for keeping your head low and mouth shut, a place where if you stay long enough you and/or your kids can get degrees.

    Conversely, those on a mission to transform lives as passionate teachers or competent administrators are constantly stymied by cronies, widespread unprofessional behavior, widespread ethics violations, and power brokers too arrogant to keep up with the market or allow those who know better to take the reins.

    Firing only low wage earners while protecting friends whenever the budget gets tight is disingenuous. Looking for new leadership in the same circle of friends is disingenuous. Hiring cronies in positions for which they are unqualified for is disingenuous. To change this culture, Howard must first change its Board.

  • Pass the Baton

    I admire Michelle Obama, Colin Powell, etc., but don't select the next President due to an emotional or celebrity impulse. It is ignorant to assume a person who didn't go to an HBCU is automatically unqualified or too removed to serve in a leadership position at Howard. That's the provincial thinking that has permitted such unaccountable behavior all these years. Being "in the tribe", keeping up appearances, and paying homage to Howard’s very deserved past glories is more important than furthering the mission.

    Who you know and your proximity to "power" is so much more important than knowing how to do your job at Howard...it's very emblematic of the DC mentality. So on that note, I'd recommend a higher education or corporate executive with DEMONSTRATED turnaround skills and a heart for the mission. And if they happen not to be a Howard or HBCU alum, then so be it. Howard has had the same tired Trustees from the same tired circles for decades. Both the new President and a new Board need to be cut from a different cloth.

  • Nick

    Howard has become a joke and that's unfortunate. I wish they would sell their campus to Georgetown and private developers. The cash they would receive would allow them to add to their endowment and build a new campus in Prince Georges County that is designed to meet their future needs.

  • Tony Stone

    Howard's problem is trying to achieve ethnic purity, in breeding, disregarding merit, hiring immature and least qualified leaders based on race, nepotism and ghetto culture. The answer is a more diverse workforce (white and black not just different neighborhoods of Trinidad and Jamaica) and servant leaders who have merit and persistent intensive work to improve customer service at all levels. Dr. Ribeau was qualified and that is why he did not survive. The successor is not even one tenth as qualified and it scares me. God Bless Howard.

  • M

    What a mess!!! I agree with those of you who fault the board of trustees in allowing these sort of things to perpetuate. The way things are now in academia, BOT members can no longer be chosen based on who they know and how much money they donate to the university. Nor can they use this opportunity to become feathers in their caps. The days for that are over, i.e. self-aggrandizement and being pompous. Looking at the names of the current board members, it is full of people who have become a part of the nouveau riche, in other words a country club. More attention is going to have to be paid to recruiting those members who have expertise in management along with a commitment to the university. Careful attention is going to have to be paid to expertise and what the person brings to the table. There are some of us who have graduated from Howard who are not as well known but would bring knowledge, skills and commitment to ensuring that the Ribeaus of the world do not rob the coffers of Howard and who are committed to advancing its mission and vision.

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