Former University treasurer Georgina Stephens wants her job back. And on Thursday, facing the judges of one of the state’s highest courts, her attorney tried to make that happen.
Karl Oliver argued before three Minnesota Court of Appeals judges that the University’s decisions surrounding Stephens’ employment were wrong and should be reversed.
But the University argued back, insisting it had every right to change Stephens’ job duties as University treasurer and associate vice president of finance and operations, and eventually vote in a new treasurer.
In November, following a University review of Stephens’ external litigation, the University removed Stephens’ fiscal responsibilities, re-assigned her to new job responsibilities, elected a different Board of Regents treasurer and announced her contract would not be renewed in July.
The principal issue is the University’s constitutional autonomy and its right to make its own management decisions, said University attorney Tom Schumacher. The Minnesota Supreme Court has defended the University’s autonomy in the past.
Stephens said the University targeted her because of personal bankruptcy, in turn violating federal legal protections for employees.
But in court documents, the University said it knew of Stephens’ bankruptcy before she was hired, but did not take action until allegations of Stephens’ pattern of improper and unethical conduct came to the University’s attention in October.
The University said in court documents the job decisions resulted from evidence of misconduct that made Stephens “unfit to continue to serve in her position of high trust.” She also could not be insured, a requirement for a treasurer.
And the University’s fact-finding review showed Stephens “lied and presented false evidence to a court, lied to the University, failed to disclose material information to the bankruptcy courts, failed to file state and federal tax returns and otherwise engaged in conduct not befitting the University’s expectation of its executive officers,” according to court documents.
However, Oliver said the University can’t say it made its decisions because of the bankruptcy “because they would lose hands down.” Federal law makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based solely on bankruptcy.
Instead, Oliver said, the University scoured the record for anything it could use against Stephens.
In a court document filed prior to Thursday’s hearing, the University said “failure to file income tax returns is especially repugnant where, as here, the delinquent taxpayer is the associate vice president and treasurer of a major public institution and responsible for large amounts of public funds.” Willful failure to file tax returns is a state and federal crime.
But Oliver said the University is “just cherry-picking one fact and taking it totally out of distortion to make (Stephens) look bad.” Oliver said the University treated Stephens as it did because it was concerned about its public image.
Assets and liabilities
Before her job re-assignments, Stephens managed University assets and debts, $3 billion in insured property and other key financial projects. She also presented to the legislative and public presentations on the University’s behalf. Following Yudof and Spence’s decision, Stephens said she was moved out of her Morrill Hall office and re-assigned to write two reports.
“Given the nature of the allegations, we just had to get her out of the office of treasurer. … It would have been hard to deposit her back into the same group with all the responsibilities she had,” Yudof said.
Stephens demonstrated patterns of “questionable judgment, poor documentation and incomplete communication with University management and staff,” according to the review. However, at an October board meeting, regents publicly commended Stephens for her management of University funds.
Oliver said Stephens’ personal setbacks and not financial irresponsibility led to her bankruptcy. She should not be punished for her past mistakes, he said.
Stephens’ appeal is not her only route to addressing what she says are the injustices of her reassignments. On April 13, Stephens filed an employment discrimination complaint in the Hennepin County District Court based on alleged racism.
As for the appellate case, it is now up to this court to decide if it’ll intervene. They have 90 days.
Stephen’s contract as associate vice president of finance and operations will expire June 30. Despite this timeline, Stephens said she doesn’t believe these are the last months of her contract.
“I am looking forward to a win and being reinstated to my position and my office in 301 Morrill Hall,” she said Tuesday.
Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and federal government and can be reached at [email protected]