Admission that Regents don't read employee appeals - CBS46 News

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Investigation exposes admission that Regents don't read employee appeals

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A CBS Atlanta investigation exposes allegations that the powerful Board of Regents has mishandled appeals filed by terminated employees. 

With a $7.5 billion budget, the Regents run all 31 of Georgia's public colleges and universities which include the University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology. They are also responsible for reviewing appeals filed by terminated employees or expelled students but CBS Atlanta has uncovered a document that reveals the Regents don't read the appeals before voting on them.    

"It's ruined my life," said Dale Owens.

"I lost my marriage," said Todd Brandenburg.

"I literally sat there at night," said PJ Peterson. "Crying, begging God, 'Why, what did I do?'"

Six people explained to CBS Atlanta News reporter Jeff Chirico how they believe they were unjustly fired by the university system of Georgia. Most said they were terminated by college presidents after criticizing a school policy or practice which they said was "rubber stamped" by the board. Each received the same form letter from the Board of Regents claiming it investigated, reviewed and carefully considered the appeal but denied it with no explanation.

"I thought the board of regents was my advocate," said Todd Brandenburg. "I'm naive."

Hidden inside public files, CBS Atlanta uncovered a deposition the board has fought to keep secret, in which Regent Doreen Poitevint admitted regents don't actually read appeal documents. 

"I can't think of a single incident where that's been the case," said Poitevint during the deposition.

CBS Atlanta analyzed ten years of appeals and found the board upheld 97 percent of terminations.

"I think the number speaks for themselves. It shows it's just a formality that the Board of Regents goes through," said Nancy Abudu, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Abudu, who represented a university whistle blower, argued in court records that the board violated his right to due process by not providing a meaningful opportunity to appeal his termination.  The case lost - in part - because the board has immunity.

"The Board of Regents benefits from the legal protections that are afforded to the state when it comes to who can sue the state and what relief a litigant can seek against the state," said Abudu. 

For a month CBS Atlanta tried to interview Vice Chancellor Burns Newsome, the Board of Regents attorney, who reviews appeals and recommends how the board should vote. Workers we spoke to said Newsome's recommendations aren't based on a full investigation.

"He determines whether there's grounds for you to sue, and if there's no grounds for you to sue, he sends out a form letter," said Owens.

Newsome and another board attorney, Kimberly Ballard-Washington, eventually agreed to sit down with CBS Atlanta for an interview.  Newsome said the 97 percent denial rate isn't proof of a rubber stamp process but rather shows terminations are being handled properly at the campus level.

"We provide the best advice we can with the documents we have," said Newsome.

Newsome and Washington said the key factor in making recommendations is keeping the board from getting sued, but they also consider employees' interests.  When asked if those might at times conflict, Washington said, "No. They never do. The best interest of the Board of Regents is to not lose cases in court."

When asked about allegations that the Board of Regents don't protect employee's rights to due process when they file an appeal, Newsome said, "I should make clear there's no constitutional right to have the hearing before the Board of Regents.  The Board of Regents appeals process is discretionary entirely." 

But Abudu said she doesn't believe the current process of determining appeals protects of system employees and students. The workers CBS Atlanta spoke to agree and said the Board of Regent's current appeals process left them without the jobs they loved and unable to find work in their fields.

"You get blacklisted once you get terminated," said Peterson.

"I will literally never work again because of the accusations made at me," said Thomas Thibeault. "They completely ruined my career as a teacher."

Regent Poitevint would not speak about her deposition when asked by Chirico. 

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