Acquitted Central State President Blasts Ohio Officials for Legal Tangle
By Mark Fisher
Triumphant following his complete vindication by a jury, Dr. Arthur E. Thomas lashed out late last month at Ohio officials who had tried to force him to repay a portion of a $325,000 severance agreement he received when he resigned as president of Central State University in 1995.
Thomas claims the civil lawsuit filed by state officials seeking repayment of more than $125,000 was a racially motivated attempt to find a scapegoat after several investigations found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing at Central State during the mid-1990s.
An all-White, eight-member jury deliberated for four hours over two days before reaching its verdict in favor of Thomas. The Ohio Attorney General’s office, representing Central State, had sued Thomas in Greene County Common Pleas Court after state auditors concluded a portion of Thomas’ severance pay was improper. Auditors also accused Thomas of not properly documenting travel and telephone costs and of improperly removing certain artwork from the president’s residence that belonged to the university. Jurors rejected all of the state’s claims.
“Central State University was used as a vehicle so that the state could try to get me,” Thomas says. He adds that Ohio is “a state that punishes you when you call it a racist,” and goes on to say the state “is more racist
today than Mississippi was in the 1940s.”
Thomas’s attorney, Larry James of Columbus, says the case was pursued by a state attorney general’s office, former Gov. George Voinovich and other state officials “who hated Dr. Thomas so much they couldn’t let it go.”
But Jonathan Hollingsworth, a Dayton
attorney hired by the Ohio Attorney General’s office to handle the Thomas case and similar Central State matters, says neither race nor personal grudges had anything to do with the lawsuit or the trial.
“This is a case of trying to recover state money that was improperly expended. It is not about Dr. Thomas’ personality, and it is certainly not about Dr. Thomas being used as a scapegoat,” Hollingsworth says. “The only person who appears to believe that race was an issue is Dr. Thomas.”
Thomas, James and Hollingsworth are African Americans.
Karen Jackson, a member of the all-White jury, says race was not a factor in deliberations. Jackson, a school bus driver, says jurors concluded state attorneys didn’t prove their case.
“There’s no question about it — he did nothing wrong,” Jackson says of Thomas. “Nobody (on the jury) questioned his character.”
Six of the eight jurors — the minimum needed to reach a verdict in a civil trial in common pleas court in Ohio — concluded that Central State’s board of trustees did have the authority to award $125,000 in accumulated vacation and sick leave to the departing president as part of the severance package Thomas and the board negotiated in 1995. Jackson says that issue prompted the most discussion among jurors, whom she said were split four-to-four on the issue when deliberations broke for the day.
Jackson says jurors had an easier time concluding Thomas should not have to repay the university for travel and telephone reimbursements that state auditors claimed were not properly documented and for a tapestry that auditors suggested Thomas improperly took with him when he departed the university’s president’s home. Thomas testified that he did not have the tapestry and could not recall what it looked like.
The state’s star witness was Daniel Schultz, the second-in-command in the Ohio Auditor’s Office. He testified that Thomas should have to repay $841 in expenses incurred in 1994 when Thomas was invited by the National Association for Equal Opportunity to testify in Oxford, Miss., in the landmark Ayers vs. Fordice case. Thomas had left blank the line on an expense account that asked for the purpose of the trip, and auditors concluded the trip did not have anything to do with Central State, a statement that left Thomas’ attorney incredulous.
“The individual who forced this lawsuit to go forward should have to pay for it out of their own pocket,” says James, adding that he knew the state’s case was weak.
Because Central State was the plaintiff in the case, the money expended on it will come from the university’s budget, not the Ohio
Attorney General’s office. James called that “a travesty,” since Central State officials did not want to pursue the case.
A spokesman for the Ohio Attorney
General’s Office says that Hollingsworth’s law firm had recorded more than $48,000 in legal fees on the Thomas case and other
related matters. It was not clear whether that figure included the late-August trial.
Hollingsworth says he would be willing to discuss a possible appeal with Central State officials, but Gary Dowdell, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, says an
appeal is unlikely. The jury has spoken, Dowdell says, and an appeal would take more precious dollars from the school’s budget.
“We want to move forward. We don’t have a lot of interest in going back,” Dowdell says.
The civil case represents the last
remaining potential legal action against Thomas, who served as Central State’s president from 1985-95 and who was pressured to resign during a time of political and financial crisis at the university. Many legislators and other state officials, along with former Gov. George Voinovich — who is now a senator — blamed Thomas for the university’s chronic
financial problems and exerted strong pressure on the former board of trustees to oust him.
But Thomas produced a 1992 Ohio Board of Regents news release from a Central State task force that lavished praise on how the
university was being operated at the time,
noting an increase in outside funding and
significant improvements in student financial aid operations, among other accomplishments.
“Central State University’s current
leadership has done a responsible and capable job of managing the university, which has
received unqualified audit opinions for five
consecutive years from independent
auditing firms appointed by the auditor of state,” the report says.
Thomas says state officials turned against him after he complained to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about what he believed was chronic
underfunding by the state.
Even at the trial, Thomas received
community support. Loretta Walker of
Xenia, whose sons both graduated from
Central State and whose oldest son went on to get an advanced degree from MIT, says she
attended a portion of the trial to show support for Dr. Thomas, even though she had never met him before. The two embraced during a break in testimony.
Thomas — who now serves as a consultant to Florida A&M University — says in
retrospect, he wishes he had worked with the university’s alumni and community leaders to file a class-action lawsuit against the state of Ohio over the funding of Central State.
“Central State University is my alma mater. I gave it everything I possibly could, and I will love it till the day I die,” he says.
John Garland, president of Central State since September 1997, has led a resurgence of the university. Central State is in Wilberforce, Ohio, across the street from Wilberforce University, a separate, private HBCU.
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