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SWAC Commissioner fired, files suit

June 12, 2001

LUT WILLIAMS
BCSP Editor

The Southwestern Athletic Conference and now fired Commissioner Rudy Washington are headed to court.

Rudy Washington According to his attorney, John Falkenberry of Birmingham, Washington, placed on leave by the conference's Council of Presidents in late April and replaced in the Birmingham conference headquarters on an interim basis by former Commissioner Dr. James Frank, was notified in writing on May 4 that he was being fired for a host of financial and management issues.

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The letter was from Council chairman, Dr. Clinton Bristow, president of Alcorn State University, and specified June 8 as the date of termination.

Washington subsequently filed suit May 17 in Jefferson County (Al.) Circuit Court, asking Judge Jack Carl for a temporary injunction preventing his firing and reinstating him as commissioner. Washington also asks in the suit that conference officials and representatives of member institutions be ordered to stop implying that he has stolen money from the conference or otherwise acted in some unethical way in the performance of his duties.

"We are out to have Mr. Washington reinstated, have his name cleared and get any damages and compensation that may be due him," said Falkenberry, a Birmingham attorney who is representing Washington along with Brian R. Bostick and Payton Lacy, also of the city. "We are trying to ensure that his good name and reputation as an administrator are protected."

Washington, who Falkenberry said is not currently on the SWAC payroll, could not be reached for comment.

The firing and legal action follow a period of uncertainly as to exactly what was going on at the conference office. When the President's Council put Washington on leave, Bristow would only say that they had differences in how things were approached and needed time to reconcile them.

Upon reassuming the reins of the conference, Frank said he was brought in by the Council because they were having problems with the Commissioner and that his job was to run the office in the interim, peruse the financial records and make recommendations where needed.

It apparently didn't take long for someone to recommend that Washington get the ax.

Though the conference has filed no formal answer to Washington's suit, Bristow told reporter Solomon Crenshaw, Jr., in a Birmingham News story last week that the conference has done nothing wrong to merit a suit and would "defend and respond aggressively."

The SWAC is being represented by Kenneth Thomas of Thomas, Means & Gillis, a law firm based in Montgomery with offices in Birmingham.

Judge Carl has given lawyers at least 45 days for discovery (gathering of facts or documents related to the case including depositions) meaning it will probably not be heard until late July or early August.

At the heart of the matter appears to be an audit of the conference's books conducted this year by the Birmingham firm of Banks, Finley, White and Co., the first since Washington took over as commissioner from Frank in July 1998.

According to Falkenberry who was contacted in his Birmingham office Monday, Washington's termination letter includes a memo dated May 1 which outlines reasons for his firing apparently linked to the audit.

They include "poor fiscal management, operating the conference with a deficit from 1997 through 2000, untimely financial reporting and management of the general ledger, incorrect posting of payroll journals, reporting revenue and expenses in the wrong fiscal year and overstatement of the commissioner's salary."

While Falkenberry said he does not know the specifics of many of the allegations, he said some are clearly baseless.

For example, the memo says the conference operated with a deficit from 1997-2000 whereas Washington took over in July 1998. Frank was there during the 1997-98 fiscal year and the previous year when the conference also operated with a deficit.

The memo says there was an overpayment of the commissioner's salary totalling $78,750. Falkenberry said Washington was notified upon being placed on leave of an overpayment of nearly $41,000 on his salary as a result of a payroll glitch and promptly repaid the sum.

The audit, which Falkenberry has seen, does report that the conference ended in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2000 with a deficit of over $460,000.

The suit states that "Washington's termination is nothing more than a political power play based on misleading and overstated charges." The suit also lists rumors circulated about Washington, some on The SWAC Page Internet Message Board (www.swacpage.com), an independent website not run by the conference, which accuse Washington of stealing $1.5 million and labeled him "a crook, thief, con artist and scammer."

"Those rumors are of such specificity and such direct accusations of theft that they almost have to come from the SWAC, or somebody who knows about this audit report," Falkenberry said in the Birmingham News story.

Falkenberry said Washington's contract with the league runs through 2002 and has no termination language. And in what he called an "interesting twist," the contract has never been signed.

2001 Azeez Communications, Inc.

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