Former Kentucky State University staff regent and administrative assistant Chandee Felder was fired last month due to an alleged violation of the school’s HR policy and ethics code as well as “gross misconduct.”
Her termination came on the heels of her criticism of the school’s board for what she characterized as inaction on issues regarding the university’s worsening financial position.
Now, just three weeks after her firing, Felder is filing a lawsuit against the university in Franklin Circuit Court claiming that the school fired her in “direct retaliation” for her disclosure of information related to financial mismanagement at the university.
Felder asks in the suit, filed on Tuesday afternoon, for damages and reinstatement to her position, as well as a jury trial.
The suit, submitted by Mike Augustus of Bolus Law Firm in Louisville, notes that her termination took place one day before a story on her criticism of the board was set to run in The State Journal.
That report included text messages shared by Felder showing that she discussed the financial health of the university with multiple members of the board of regents a year and a half before the resignation of former KSU president M. Christopher Brown II precipitated revelations about the school’s poor financial position. Chief Financial Officer Greg Rush has said that the school needs a bailout by next April and that it anticipates a more than $15 shortfall this year.
As previously reported, Felder had contacted the office of Gov. Andy Beshear about financial issues at KSU as far back as July 2020. She also reached out to Board Chair Elaine Farris in January 2020 regarding the school’s finances.
“Ms. Felder routinely alerted fellow Board members to the mushrooming financial deficits and problems at KSU, including, but not limited to, a recurrent lack of operational fund to even ‘make payroll’ and debts to vendors remaining unpaid for long periods of time, eventually being ‘turned over” for collections,’" the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit adds, however, that Felder contacted the office of Attorney General Daniel Cameron and state legislators on both sides of the aisle.
The lawsuit states, and Felder had previously shared with The State Journal, that Felder sent emails to State Senator and KSU alum Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, Senator Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, and Cameron.
Per emails shared by Felder, only Alvarado responded to her. She contacted all three on the same day in July.
Is she a whistleblower?
Last month, University of Kentucky College of Law professor Scott Bauries told The State Journal that any ruling on whether or not Felder is protected by the state whistleblower law would likely come down to the determination of whether those she reached out to are considered “appropriate bodies” and what she disclosed to them.
The lawsuit states that an “appropriate body” includes anyone “who may have authority to remedy or report perceived misconduct in a particular situation.” It also states that that she was terminated “specifically because she made good-faith reports of governmental wrongdoing.”
Augustus had reached out to the school’s general counsel nearly a week before Felder’s firing informing the school that he was representing her “relative to the exercise of her rights under the Kentucky Whistleblower Act.”
The school, in an email from the office of Acting President Clara Stamps to members of campus staff and faculty shortly after Felder’s firing, seemed to disagree with Augustus.
The email characterized Felder’s testimony to The State Journal as “self-serving.”
“On Friday, Sept. 17, there were three front-page stories critical of Kentucky State University,” the email read. “The stories heavily relied on self-serving assertions and information from a former employee and staff regent terminated for cause.”
It also pointed out that disclosures to members of the media don’t protect employees under state whistleblower law.
“The Court specifically held that any disclosures made to the press, even with the intent to bring forth wrongdoing to light, would not be subject to protection under KRS 61.102 because the news media is not an appropriate body within the meaning of the statute,” the email read.
The lawsuit also claims that Felder was an exemplary employee prior to her termination, and regularly received strong performance reviews. It also states that when Felder started reaching out to people regarding the school’s finances, she began to experience frequent departmental transfers.
“In the first 10 years of her employment, Ms. Felder was never transferred,” the lawsuit reads. “In the last 13 months of her employment, beginning shortly after she joined the Board of Regents, she was transferred a total of five times.”
It states, too, that Brown encouraged Felder to run for the office of staff regent.
The lawsuit cites her complaints about the school’s finances and “no” vote on the school’s $55 million dorm project as indicators that she would not “rubber stamp” administration initiatives. Felder voted no on the dorm project with Regents Paul Harnice and Dalton Jantzen.
“It soon became evident that Ms. Felder would not simply provide a ‘rubber stamp’ of approval for every action of (or spending request made by) KSU’s President, the Board Chair, or any other individual associated with KSU pursuing their own individual agenda,” the lawsuit states.