Former Lamar University associate VP claims she lost job over leaked report

Kelly Holleran May 16, 2013, 1:14pm

The former associate vice president of finance for Lamar State University, who authored a highly publicized report criticizing the college’s spending, claims she lost her job due to her connection with the report.

Vicki Ward filed a lawsuit May 9 in Jefferson County District Court against Lamar University, Texas State University System and James Simmons.

In her complaint, Ward alleges Simmons, who was president of Lamar University, forced her from her position after she wrote a report that was leaked to the media. In the report, the college was criticized for spending $66,000 worth of government money at Barnes and Noble and Sam’s Club on gift cards and other items.

In her report, Ward also revealed inadequate dorm conditions in which drugs were allegedly found on countertops and rooms were rented to people who were not college students, according to the complaint.

“The LU department most involved in the fraudulent financial matters was student services, which up until late 2011, was supervised by Barry Johnson, President Simmons self-claimed best friend,” the suit states. 

Before the report, Ward claims she and Simmons had gotten along fine. He had praised her work and given her raises. In fact, he authorized Ward to conduct the internal audit at the college after she had noticed suspicious criminal transactions, the complaint says.

Simmons became upset with Ward following the leak of the report to the media. He believed she was responsible for revealing the findings, according to the complaint. After the report was made public, Simmons asked Ward to retract it, but she refused to do so, the suit states.

“Simmons became enraged not by the misappropriations of LU funds but at Plaintiff for having revealed the matters,” the complaint alleges. “He has continued to openly talk negative about plaintiff in a clear attempt to hurt her reputation on campus and career.”

Ward alleges that in retaliation, Simmons began to limit the number of duties Ward could perform. In addition, he refused to promote her to interim vice president to fill the open position in finance, according to the complaint. Instead, he chose two people who had no prior financial experience to fill the role, the suit states.

Ward faced increasing pressure, not only from Simmons, but from Texas State University System’s Vice Chancellor Fernando Gomez, who told her she would be given a severance package if she agreed to resign.

Eventually, Gomez threatened Ward that she could either accept the deal or face termination, according to the complaint.

All of the stress began to wear on Ward, according to the suit.

“Plaintiff started to panic and her heart was beating out of her chest and she began to feel faint and then the headaches set in, as she worried about her family which she supported, and how close she was to her work which she loved and depended on,” the suit states.

Due to her heightened anxiety levels, Ward began seeing a Houston doctor, who placed her on medical leave, the complaint says. Ward has accumulated a number of medical leave days, which she does not intend to use in their entirety, and applied for the Family and Medical Leave Act so she could secure her position during her medical leave. However, the defendants told Ward that her job would not be available to her when she returns, she claims.

Because of her numerous work-related issues, including her job loss, Ward lost benefits; experienced pain, suffering and mental anguish; and lost her capacity to enjoy life, according to the complaint.

In her complaint, Ward is asking that the court issue an injunction, which would prohibit the school from engaging in further retaliatory acts against her. She also wants the court to reinstate her to her former position of associate vice president and controller.

Ward seeks compensatory damages, plus back and front pay, attorney’s fees, costs, pre- and post-judgment interest at the maximum rate allowed by law and other relief the court deems just.

Larry Watts and Ike Okorafor of Watts and Associates in Missouri City will be representing her.

The case has been assigned to Judge Donald Floyd, 172nd District Court.

Case No. E194-323

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