The University of Connecticut paid one dozen employees large settlements – many over $100,000 – to get them to resign and keep quiet about their time working for the university, according to state auditors.
Other agencies participated in the practice, too, although less frequently. The Auditors of Public Accounts faulted the practice because the agreements lacked oversight from the governor or attorney general as required by law and keeps potential whistleblowers from speaking out.
The auditor’s cited 17 instances in which employees signed a “separation agreement and general release” that included large payments for employees involuntarily separated from employment. Twelve of those agreements involved former UConn professors or officials. Other agreements involved UConn Health, the Board of Regents, Southern Connecticut State University and the Connecticut Lottery system.
In their 2016 report to the General Assembly, the Auditors of Public Accounts criticized separation payments in excess of $100,000 made by state agencies saying they included non-disparagement agreements to prevent the former employee from speaking about their time at the agency or the reasons for their separation.
The separation payments take the form of extended periods of absence during which the professor or employee is paid by the university but is not working. In some cases, the employees take on an advisory or consultant position for a set period of time before finally ending their employment with the university.
The releases ensure the professors and officials will not file suit because of their dismissal and protects the employees’ ability to collect their pensions as well.
All the cases involve employees who “involuntarily” separated from employment. The cases were divided between those related to job performance and those not related to job performance. Some of the payments, such as the $3.4 million payment to UConn football coach Robert Diaco are contract buy-outs but most are out-of-court settlements to avoid lawsuits.
In some instances, an individual remains on the payroll as an “advisor” for a period of time even though he or she has resigned. For example, Brinley Franklin, vice provost for the university libraries, received his full pay of $202,829 to be an off-site, part-time consultant for one year.
Other cases, such as the anthropology professor James Boster’s dismissal, involved extended periods of paid leave pending termination.
Among the individuals who were let go due to reasons not related to job performance are some high profile managers and officials including the Richard Gray, UConn’s former chief financial officer, and Cheryl Norton, former president of Southern Connecticut State University.
Gray left UConn with a $138,000 separation package which included a non-disparagement agreement that he would not make any “derogatory or defamatory statements” about the university and that he would “fully cooperate” with any investigation that may arise from an “alleged violation” that occurred during his tenure.
In 2009 Norton was also forced out of her position for reasons unrelated to job performance under suspicious circumstances that were never disclosed. She received a separation payment of $321,000. Under the terms of her release she agreed not to make any disparaging comments about the university board of trustees, the chancellor of the university system or the university itself.
Among the employees forced out because of issues related to job performance were Jefferey Hathaway, UConn’s former athletic director. Hathaway quickly resigned from his position at the school after Susan Herbst took over as university president in 2011. His separation package included his base salary of $351,000 plus $179,000 of “media availability payments,” for a total payment of $531,000 over the course of two years plus medical benefits.
This agreement also included a non-disparagement clause.
David Woods, former dean of fine arts for UConn, was forced to resign in the wake of a sexual misconduct case involving a professor he oversaw. Woods was faulted by the university for failing to take action over sexual misconduct by a UConn music professor, Robert F. Miller.
Woods said the university was aware of the allegations for over a decade but an outside investigation singled Woods out for blame specifically and resulted in his dismissal from the university.
Woods filed suit against the school in 2014 but the audit records show he received nearly $256,000 from UConn in 2015 as a settlement. Miller, the professor accused of the misconduct, retired before he could be terminated and collects a $69,000 pension.
Other cases are less well known or were not publicized at all. Timothy Dowding, a former UConn professor-in-residence, was terminated due to “discriminatory harassment,” according to the separation agreement. The agreement included a section prohibiting him from further contact with a particular student.
The university agreed to give Dowding a lump sum payment equal to five months of his $173,000 salary and he remains eligible for his pension according to the release and agreement.
Former UConn law professor, Robin Barnes, was given one year of “research leave” before her employment would be ended. During the research leave, Barnes was not allowed to use any university facilities and received 50 percent of her $143,000 salary plus medical benefits.
According to the agreement, the separation was due to “allegations of improper retention of funds during an unpaid leave, and disputes regarding alleged pay inequities, leave status, teaching requirements and consulting activities.”
In the report to the General Assembly, the auditors said the payments “were made for the purpose of avoiding costs associated with litigation or as part of non-disparagement agreements.”
This is not the first year the state auditors have criticized this practice, which they say runs afoul of state statute and prevents potential whistle-blowers from coming forward. Overall, whistle-blower claims in Connecticut have dropped sharply from previous years. According to the report, there were only 18 whistle-blower claims in 2016, down from 43 in 2015 and 34 in 2014.
In 2016, Gov. Dannel Malloy vetoed legislation that would have strengthened protections against questionable payments and require state agencies to implement the recommendations of the state auditors.
Part of that bill required state agencies to report “any unauthorized, illegal, irregular or unsafe handling or expenditure of state funds or quasi-public agency funds” to state auditors. The auditors would then notify a variety of authorities, including the governor, state comptroller, lawmakers and the attorney general.
The auditors also listed the separation agreement for Anne Noble, former CEO of the Connecticut Lottery Corp. Noble stepped down from the position in September of 2016 but continued on as an “advisor” earning her $212,000 salary plus a bonus. Following her role as an advisor, which ended in January, Noble was then paid $150,000 to remain as a “consultant” for six months.
The deal was labelled a “golden handshake” by the Hartford Courant. In an editorial, the Courant wrote that “it’s a mystery why she’s getting it,” particularly when the state was facing deficits and laying off employees.
Noble’s tenure at the Connecticut Lottery had been marred by a security flaw in one of the games that allowed retailers to rig the game in order to win. Although Noble initially claimed she only found out about the flawed game in October of 2015, documents obtained by WTNH News 8 through Freedom of Information requests showed Noble knew about the flaw since January of 2015.
During the ten month interim between discovery and suspension of the game, retailers were able to exploit the security flaw, which resulted in the arrest of 8 Connecticut retailers for computer crimes and larceny.
Noble announced she was leaving the lottery a year after news of the flawed lottery game came to public attention.
Auditor of Public Accounts John Geragosian said “there should at least be some kind of third-party to review these agreements” Geragosian says he wants to ensure whistleblower protections for former employees. “Somebody who has information should not be denied the right to repeat it.”