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Published: Tuesday, 11/13/2007

Reinstated whistle-blower sues UT, seeks damages

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Suzette Fronk always maintained the University of Toledo fired her because she repeatedly raised questions about alleged improper athletic spending.

Ms. Fronk, UT's former assistant athletic director for business affairs, has said as much in a lawsuit filed against the university in the Ohio Court of Claims.

Her attorneys filed suit on her behalf even though UT reinstated Ms. Fronk to her position within the athletic department on July 12. She has since been offered - and accepted - a move out of athletics and into the finance department.

Kevin Greenfield, one of Ms. Fronk's attorneys, said his client is pursuing legal action after the university failed to agree to a monetary settlement for the damages against her.

Ms. Fronk contends she was fired in May for voicing concerns to university athletic and finance officials over who could travel with athletic teams to sporting events at UT's cost, the items coaches charged on their university-issued credit cards, and contracts negotiated by coaches that would have deprived UT of money it was owed - all while the department's books were spiraling toward a deficit.

Her attorney said she also believes an e-mail in which UT Athletic Director Mike O'Brien referred to her as the "ultimate disgruntled employee" placed her in a false public light.

"These issues have been there from Day 1; they didn't go away when she was rehired," Mr. Greenfield said. "We tried to get these issues addressed from the beginning. I guess the university has decided to take a stance on this, and that's their prerogative."

Ms. Fronk declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Larry Burns, UT's vice president for marketing, communications, and enrollment services.

Rick Stansley, chairman of the university's board of trustees, said it would be inappropriate to comment now, but said he may have a statement after he reviews the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit filed last week, Ms. Fronk asks the court to grant her "compensatory damages commensurate with her loss, award her court costs, and any other relief" the court deems "just and equitable."

Mr. Greenfield said the monetary amount his client seeks will be determined as the evidence unfolds.

Ms. Fronk's questioning of her own department led to investigations by the university and The Blade, but she also said it led to her being shown the door.

In a letter dated May 15, Ms. Fronk was told her termination was due to the "reorganization related to the merger of the University of Toledo and the Medical University of Ohio."

But in an e-mail from Mr. O'Brien to Blade Vice President and General Manager Joseph H. Zerbey IV dated June 7, Mr. O'Brien said he "eliminated" Ms. Fronk's position and that she was the "ultimate disgruntled employee."

"I had to eliminate her role as she was a tremendous blow to our morale; among other things," Mr. O'Brien wrote to Mr. Zerbey.

The e-mail was sent the day Blade reporters interviewed Ms. Fronk about her allegations of improper spending and other problems within the athletic department.

The following week UT President Lloyd Jacobs announced he was ordering tighter financial and administrative controls within the athletic department. His announcement was made one day after Blade reporters questioned top UT finance officials about Ms. Fronk's allegations. He also said Ms. Fronk's questions in part led to the university's internal assessment.

Mr. O'Brien's e-mail was not given to Blade reporters by Mr. Zerbey, but was obtained through a public-records request to the university.

Mr. O'Brien declined an interview request with The Blade at the time, but said in a written statement that he wrote the e-mail "at a time of high frustration" and "mischaracterized the situation."

About a week after The Blade reported on the contents of Mr. O'Brien's e-mail, Dr. Jacobs ordered Ms. Fronk's termination letter be rescinded and that she be returned to her former role in the athletic department.

Ms. Fronk received further validation near the end of July when the results of UT's internal assessment were released.

Many of the issues she raised were confirmed, including:

•NCAA and Mid-American Conference standards regarding team travel weren't followed last year on men's basketball trips.

•UT athletic staffers were abusing the university's courtesy-car program and not keeping proper records.

•Procedures and record-keeping regarding barter agreements had been largely ignored.

Dr. Jacobs addressed these findings at a July town-hall meeting with the athletic department when he said, "There is no room for a good ol' boy network," and "There is not room for anyone to use the phrase, 'That's how we've always done it.'•"

But the same day Dr. Jacobs made those comments, he also announced that Mr. O'Brien had signed a three-year contract extension.

The two people who records show had clashed time and again for the last two years over athletic department spending - Ms. Fronk and Mr. O'Brien - were to continue working together under Dr. Jacobs' orders.

According to Ms. Fronk's lawsuit, that never really happened.

Although she returned as the assistant athletic director for business affairs, Ms. Fronk's office was located within the finance department rather than in athletics.

Ms. Fronk's lawsuit claims she was kept out of the loop on athletics business matters by Mr. O'Brien and others after she returned. The suit also says Mr. O'Brien never spoke with Ms. Fronk, save for two e-mails.

Ms. Fronk now examines all business contracts entered into by the university and assists with long-range financial planning.

Asked if Mr. O'Brien had any influence on Ms. Fronk's responsibilities being removed from athletics, Mr. Burns said: "No. It had to do with the finance department's needs fitting her skill set. We moved her for that reason."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410-5055.



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