On paper, Coastal Alabama Community College (CACC) Vice President for Human Resources Laura Burks was recommended for termination for employee misconduct, neglect of duty and insubordination, three of at least 13 charges alleged against her in a termination letter in May.
But in a hearing that began Monday, her attorney, Tom Loper, claimed Burks’ termination was retaliation for her role in a multi-campus investigation that found corruption and theft throughout the southern portion of Alabama’s two-year college system, and for Burks’ questioning of a former interim president’s academic credentials.
According to statements made during the hearing, criminal proceedings related to the corruption allegations are still underway or protected by attorney-client privilege. Thus, Keith Brown, the president of Jefferson State Community College and appointed hearing officer in the termination case, did not allow much more to be disclosed.
Instead, both Loper and attorneys for CACC presented evidence and testimony supporting the arguments at the core of Burks’ termination. Burks came under fire, along with a number of other executive staff members, after what was formerly Faulkner State Community College consolidated with Jefferson State Community College and Alabama Southern Community College to form CACC in January 2017. More than a year later, Jimmy Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, appointed peer-review committees to evaluate its executive staff and operations.
Burks, they found, who was the sole employee dedicated to human resources for a total of 16 campuses spread among four counties, “failed to supervise, monitor or document personnel actions, failed to take full managerial responsibility for all human resources for all campuses and committed fraud, forgery and dishonesty related to a college record,” among other things.
The latter of those findings centered upon a memo originally drafted in January 2017 which clarified supplemental pay after the consolidation and reorganization. On Sept. 30, 2018, Burks updated the memo to include a $1,000 monthly supplement for division chairs.
Although she and other executives were under an order to not make substantive policy or personnel decisions while the peer review was underway, both Burks and former CACC President Gary Branch testified she updated the memo at Branch’s request.
Complicating the matter was the fact Branch had signed a separation agreement with CACC five days earlier, and Jeff Rhodes had already assumed Branch’s duties via an appointment from Baker.
The hearing also underscored a large turnover within CACC’s administration last year, between the brief tenures of both Rhodes and, subsequently, interim President Patty Hughston.
In addition to Burks, Baker also recommended the termination of CACC’s police chief, its executive vice president of institutional advancement and student development, and its vice president of student services. Their own termination hearings are scheduled next month, but all testified in favor of Burks.
Aside from being understaffed and “overwhelmed” by the consolidation, Burks said any failure on her behalf to keep up with the demands of human resources were complicated not only by her role in the criminal investigation, but also by the November 2017 suicide of her 16-year-old daughter.
Burks and others testified that while they were aware of the grief Burks was suffering afterward, CACC made no “reasonable accommodations” to lighten her workload or allow time off to attend appointments with a psychiatrist.
“I was in bad shape … I was dying,” Burks testified. “I was grieving myself to death.”
Separately, after Hughston’s appointment, Burks claimed she raised questions about Hughston’s academic credentials, specifically a claim that Hughston had three master’s degrees.
Hughston was the first to testify at the hearing. She said that any information pertaining to more than one master’s degree was submitted into the college catalog by human resources. She explained any additional representations of her continuing education were essentially master’s degrees “hours-wise,” but they were certifications, not actual degrees.
Burks testified that she and Hughston were on good terms until Burks raised the issue, but “when I saw transcripts and saw she did not have three master’s degrees … it was cold. I was professional, but I know it had to be embarrassing to her to claim she had three and she only had one, so it was a tense relationship.”
Dr. Brenda Kennedy, CACC’s executive vice president of institutional advancement and student development, who is also on administrative leave pending a termination hearing, said she first sat down with Hughston late last November and Hughston’s first question was, “why didn’t you tell me you were working with Laura [Burks]?”
Afterward, Kennedy testified that Hughston said “if she got hired the first thing she would do is terminate Laura Burks.”
Burks’ termination letter was signed by Michelle Sylvester, a peer-review officer who is currently serving as interim human resources director.
Witnesses for CACC, including the members of the peer-review committee, maintained that aside from the allegedly fraudulent memo, Burks’ maintenance of human resources files was subpar. They testified that many files were incomplete, were stored in several different locations or were not up to date. Further, they claimed Burks “didn’t have a firm grasp of staffing needs” and could be “hard to get a hold of” when needed.
Meanwhile, the criminal investigation at Alabama Southern Community College and L.I.F.E. Tech, its transition center for inmate reentry programs, was spurned by a letter from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to Branch. Burks, Branch and others provided limited testimony on the investigation, but Brown cited ongoing investigations and attorney-client privilege from allowing the disclosure of much detail.
Baker himself testified in Burks’ hearing Sept. 25. He admitted he could not remember ever inspecting the allegedly fraudulent memo himself, but he largely relied on both Rhodes’ and Hughston’s recommendations to terminate Burks. Still, he said he was “ultimately responsible for the decision.”
While Rhodes made the initial recommendation, Burks took leave between the time Baker could take action and when Hughston was named interim president. But upon Burks’ return, Hughston sent a letter to Baker making the same request, and it was honored the same day. Simultaneously, Sylvester was named senior personnel officer.
Ultimately, Baker testified the termination was the result of an “accumulation of things that happened over an extended period of time.” He acknowledged that he terminated the criminal investigation, but only so it could be turned over to law enforcement and allow CACC’s administrators to focus on their primary duties. But while he denied any subsequent personnel actions were retaliatory in nature, he also admitted he never referred any alleged criminal activity to other investigative or law enforcement agencies.
“Coastal Alabama Community College had people doing many things other than the operations of the school,” said Baker, who also testified he did “absolutely not” retaliate nor “in any way interfere” with the investigation.
Still, local agencies already involved do appear to have secured at least two indictments in relation to the investigation. In April 2018, employees Thomas Reed and Daniel Wynn were charged with separate counts of receiving stolen property.
According to court records, Wynn pleaded not guilty last September and his case is on a Washington County settlement docket scheduled in November. Reed appears to be out on bond while his case is considered by a Wilcox County grand jury.
In closing arguments, the audio of which is posted alongside this story on lagniappemobile.com, CACC attorney Wendy Bitzer reiterated the reasons for Burks’ termination and said there is “plenty of evidence in support” of it.
Deficiencies in the HR department existed “prior to and continued beyond” CACC’s consolidation, Bitzer said, with Burks telling colleagues she was “job scared” and “admitting her files were not in good order.”
“People are working now at the college a year later, to try to assemble files and organize things Ms. Burks left undone and in disarray during her employment,” she said.
With the memo, Bitzer claimed “Burks even [went] so far as to make sure Dr. Branch even included the same handwritten notes at the top of the document, so it would look the same as the original.” Later, she presented “the altered document … as the original memo … with the intent to trick and deceive” peer team members.
Burks’ defensive arguments serve as nothing but a “sideshow,” Bitzer concluded, serving as a “red herring that does not support Burks’ contrived notions” of personal vendettas and retaliation, which are “merely insinuations without supporting facts.”
“This case is not about any investigation, it’s not about Ms. Hughston’s credentials or Ms. Sylvester’s serving the college during a transition period. This case is about Ms. Burks’ failure to satisfactorily perform her job duties and her neglect of duty. It is also about Ms. Burks’ alteration of a college record and her related fraudulent conduct, concealing that she changed the record that had existed for over a year and half and presenting it to others as the original. She has convinced herself there was nothing wrong with her behavior and thought she would not get caught. But her behavior was dishonest and purposely deceitful and she was not forthright. How in the world could you trust your vice president of human resources going forward under those circumstances?”
In his own closing argument, Loper admitted the HR department was indeed in disarray during the transition, “but what [Burks] challenges are the reasons for it not being good.”
An audit by an accrediting agency in 2016 found the department was in order, but it was after the consolidation, for the reasons mentioned above, that it began to fall apart.
“She went from being responsible for human resources for one large community college to one giant community college,” Loper said.
After Branch ordered certain administrators including Burks to assist in the criminal investigation in the summer of 2017, “obviously you’re spending that much time on something that’s not your job duties … your core job duties might suffer.
“Then, on top of the consolidation, on Nov. 22, 2017 Ms. Burks’ daughter passed away — she very tragically committed suicide following bullying. Ms. Burks was a single mother at the time and as any mother would do, took time off of work … and like most mothers, even when you return to work, you’re still grieving your daughter.”
Despite adhering to legally-required FMLA time off for Burks after her diagnosis of PTSD and needs to visit a psychiatrist, Loper said CACC made “no other reasonable accommodations though many, many people were well aware of Ms. Burks’ mental health and the resulting effect on her physical health, no additional assistance was provided to her.”
Addressing the altered memo, Loper said “Ms. Burks, operating under the belief that Dr. Branch had the authority to instruct such changes, made changes … does not deny it. Her failure to do it would have been an insubordination.”
“What we have here is an employee, overwhelmed as anyone would be by having to take on a significant amount of additional responsibility with no corresponding additional help … It’s clear Ms. Burks did not have the resources she needed to fully do her job.”
Finally, Loper suggested that in lieu of termination, “she be afforded some sort of progressive discipline … even a period of suspension. This is not a case that warrants termination. If Ms. Burks is given the resources she has needed, she can get this ship in order and get the HR department at Coastal Alabama on its right course.”
Brown will have the sole discretion over whether to uphold or overturn the termination, telling the parties he would make a decision within 10 days of receiving a transcript of the hearing. Meanwhile, Loper is representing other employees targeted for termination in upcoming hearings.
As Lagniappe reported in June, Baker later reassigned Hughston to a position on a gubernatorial committee at the community college system’s central office in Montgomery. Hughston testified Monday she remained in that position for two months before she resigned, and she is no longer an employee of the community college system.
Last month, Baker announced Dr. Craig Pouncey would begin his tenure as CACC president effective Oct. 1.
Since Burks was placed on administrative leave, CACC has advertised four separate open positions for human resources professionals on its website.
This post was edited to include the testimony of Baker and closing arguments.
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