University of Alabama Chancellor Finis St. John’s office remains mum about whether a man accused of harassing a female employee was punished in any way, even as his alleged victim received another large disbursement late last month that brought the total cost of the settlement so far to more than $320,000.
Lagniappe has sought information from different sources, including St. John’s office, UA’s Title IX office and the Board of Trustees as to whether the man who harassed former Department of Advancement employee Leslie Abernathy was punished for his actions. Multiple current and former UA employees have told Lagniappe the man involved is a high-ranking administrator who remains on staff. They all believe he was never reprimanded for his involvement.
After weeks of inquiries, there have been no responses from the university’s administration confirming or denying the administrator’s involvement. Public records requests pertaining to the settlement have also been ignored.
Abernathy’s settlement was finalized last year, and she began receiving post-employment payroll disbursements in April 2021. Large lump sum payments also have been made to her outside of payroll, the latest of which came on May 25, according to online records. She was paid $50,000 under the heading “Service and Professional Fees” at that time, as well as a larger-than-usual monthly payroll disbursement of $14,422.80.
Since last May, Abernathy has been paid $10,416.67 a month, which was over $2,000 more than her monthly salary while she was still working at UA — $8,025.56. It isn’t clear whether the latest payroll disbursement represents an increase that will continue. The latest payments bring the total paid to her since leaving UA to $280,781. That includes another “Service and Professional Fees” payment of $83,333.33.
Abernathy’s attorney, Will Beckum, also received a payment under the heading “Service and Professional Fees” last April for $41,666.66, which means so far her settlement has cost the university $322,447, and that number increases each month. But, whether the harasser who set such an expensive settlement in motion was ever punished remains a mystery.
In July of last year, UA System Office General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor Sid Trant confirmed there was a settlement with Abernathy and a non-disclosure agreement. Her attorney, Beckum, also confirmed the settlement and non-disclosure. The university has never disclosed what actions caused the settlement.
“I will confirm that the university entered into a confidential settlement with Leslie Abernathy in resolution of her separation from employment with UA. In any operation of this magnitude, there will be times when the employer and an employee agree to part ways in a manner that is mutually beneficial to both parties. Negotiating such a separation to include a mutual release of claims and confidentiality for the parties is also very common,” Trant wrote. “In Leslie Abernathy’s situation, she and the university reached a mutually beneficial agreement that winds down her employment with the university.”
The settlement also raised red flags because it appears UA lawyers drafted a plan that would have used Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) money to secure a deal. Using payroll to satisfy Abernathy’s settlement meant the university was also making retirement contributions for someone who was no longer an employee, which is not permitted by RSA. As previously reported, RSA returned post-employment retirement contributions made on Abernathy’s behalf after Lagniappe’s inquiries brought it to their attention. RSA relies on members to inform them when employees leave.
RSA did not investigate the settlement contract, however, and officials there said an apology from the university was enough. Still, had payments continued without RSA’s knowledge, Abernathy could have received a much larger retirement payout than what she otherwise would have based upon her actual years of service.
When Abernathy was hired, then-interim Vice President for Advancement Karen Baldwin sent out an email to colleagues announcing her arrival. The Sept. 19, 2012, email obtained by Lagniappe touted her resume, including more than 11 years of experience as the grants administrator for the Tuscaloosa County Department of Planning and Community Development.
Abernathy’s nine years at UA would have left her just short of being vested in the RSA, meaning she wouldn’t be eligible for retirement benefits without hitting 10 years of service. But Tuscaloosa County is an RSA member as well, so it’s likely Abernathy had a combined 20-plus years in the retirement system when she left UA. That would mean she is a vested RSA member, but still lacked more than four years to get to the 25-year mark when she left.
When someone fulfills 25 years of service in the RSA, he or she may retire at any age and begin drawing benefits. However, an RSA member with more than 10 years but fewer than 25 may not begin drawing benefits until age 62, according to the RSA website.
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