THE INVESTIGATORS: Southern University reviewing policies after violating open meetings law

SU employees fight back after attorney says they were punished for not carrying out illegal order

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Four Southern University employees are fighting back after their attorney says they were punished for refusing to break the law for a high-ranking university official.

Dr. Christy Moland, Dr. Elain Lewnau, Dr. Terrilynn Gillis, and Dr. Marilyn Seibert from Southern’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology are represented by Baton Rouge attorney, J. Arthur Smith.

Attorney J. Arthur Smith
Attorney J. Arthur Smith (Source: WAFB)

“They refused to carry out illegal orders and very severe actions were taken against them,” said Smith.

Smith tells WAFB’s Scottie Hunter the four professors were either fired, demoted, or hit with a pay cut after they came forward with complaints against Southern’s Executive Vice-President Dr. James Ammons in fall of 2018. One of the professors claims Ammons directed him to change a student’s grade from an F to a B. This was after he says the student only showed up for two weeks out of an eight-week clinic assignment. In a separate complaint, another professor claims they were pressured to admit six students into a graduate program despite them failing to meet the minimum requirements. Smith says once the employees reported the alleged incidents, they were targeted, and now he’s fighting to clear their names.

"These faculty members have been wronged and it's not in the interest of the university to behave in this manner,” Smith added. “It's really not and it's sad."

Back in March, a committee was tasked with reviewing the case in order to make a final recommendation to President Ray Belton. Smith says those meetings were held behind closed doors and when he and his clients showed up, he claims they were thrown out.

“I was asked to leave, my clients were asked to leave, and so the committee heard the testimony of all the witnesses without any presence or the ability of my clients to hear what was said,” he said.

According to a copy of the public records request obtained by the 9News Investigators, the attorney asked the university for copies of the audiotapes, witness testimony, and all transcripts from that meeting. The school refused the request, saying the process is ongoing and it’s too early to release any information. Smith is now concerned about what was said in the meeting and what effect it could have on the committee’s review going forward.

WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Smith if he was still pushing to get that information.

“Yes, because for the very point that you brought up, the committee has been exposed to that information,” he replied. “We came up there to resolve the grievance and we were blocked at every step.”

Smith slapped the school with a lawsuit in April, claiming they were stonewalled while simply trying to get answers. He also filed a separate public records lawsuit after the school refused to hand over the documents he requested. A judge sided against the university this week, ruling that Southern’s grievance committee violated Louisiana’s open meetings law and that everything collected behind closed doors is illegal and cannot be used in any of the committee’s decision-making going forward. The school was also ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fees and fines for violating state law in the case.

Southern University would not respond directly to the allegations against Dr. Ammons, but in a statement to WAFB, Winston Decuir Jr., attorney for the board of supervisors, fired back at the ruling. That full statement can be read below:

"Earlier this year, the university made several difficult decisions regarding leadership changes in the speech pathology department. As expected, those employees were unhappy with the changes and had a right to file a grievance and request a committee of faculty to review the decisions.

The University has always taken the position that an internal grievance committee appointed by the president or an administrator is not a public body under the public meetings laws. Committees of faculty and staff are frequently used to review a myriad of policy and employment decisions and they do not meet the definitions of a “public body.”

In this instance, a court has determined that a faculty grievance committee is, in fact, a public body. Although we do not agree with this interpretation, we will follow the court’s ruling and consider our options for appeal. Regardless of the ultimate determination as to whether the grievance committee is a public body, the university firmly believes that the underlying employment decisions were in the best interest of that department."

(Source: WAFB)

WAFB’s Scottie Hunter also asked officials with the school if any procedural changes will be made at Southern University following the ruling. Director of communications for SU, Janene Tate, responded with the following statement:

“The university is currently weighing all legal options and reviewing its policies for warranted changes.”

Despite the judge’s ruling in the case, Smith tells us he still has not heard back from Southern University about when they plan to turn over the items they collected during that closed door meeting back in March. As their legal fight continues to drag on, Smith says it’s not just his clients who are being hurt, but also Louisiana taxpayers.

“All these violations of the law does nobody any good and it just costs the taxpayers a lot of money,” Smith added.

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