Misused funds leads to lawsuit

Dedra Azonobi O’Neal won her whistle-blower case Feb. 6 against Florida A&M University with a settlement of $250,000.

The 47 year-old was the former director of  “The Life Gets Better” Scholarship program for many years at Florida A&M University, but in early 2002, she noticed discrepancies in scholarship funds and reported her concerns to the authorities. 

Her actions led to her termination from her post and having to go to trial. 

“In 2002, I started reporting to the Interim President Henry Lewis about some concern I had with funds being placed in incorrect accounts,” O’Neal said.

O’ Neal also reported the incidents to Kent Taylor, who was a part of the foundation as well. 

“I reported these instances on Feb. 12 and then again on March 5,” O’Neal said.
Scholarship recruiters offered students awards that they accepted verbally, but the students were unable to get written correspondence.  During this time, Fredrick Humphries tendered his resignation as president of the university and couldn’t finalize the scholarship letters.

“My office was experiencing a high volume of phone calls from upset parents,” O’Neal said. “Lewis didn’t want to finalize the letters himself. He said he wanted to find out what the financial situation of the university was and then later on he told me that Kent Taylor had informed him that there was no money in the accounts.”

O’Neal said this news, raised suspicion. 

“We had raised, by our records, millions of dollars,” O’Neal said. 

After not getting the response she wanted, O’Neal then brought her concerns to higher officials.

“I then went to the governor’s office and met with [Barry Harper], the chief inspector general,” O’Neal said.

A few days after her meeting, O’Neal said she received a call to meet with Lewis at his office.

In this meeting, O’Neal said that Lewis claimed her attempts were not going to get results.

“What he told me was that he and Barry Harper were good friends,” O’Neal said.  “They played golf and they socialized together.”

Also, during this meeting with Lewis, O’Neal said that she was going to be re-assigned. 
Gradually overtime, O’Neal says she was being moved from place to place with her office space.

“I went from a two suite office to a small cubicle,” O’Neal said.  “They were trying to force me out.”   

O’Neal says that she then became aware of a letter titled “The Final Vignette.” 

“It was a letter on how to get me to leave FAMU,” O’Neal said.  “So in that letter he talked about moving me again because he said this might hasten me to leaving FAMU,” O’Neal said. 

So after another failed attempt to force her to quit, O’Neal said they fired her altogether. 

It was at this point O’Neal decided to take her fight to court and with the assistance of Marie Mattox. 

After the suit was filed, there were many motions back and forth between FAMU and Mattox according to O’Neal. She said the school wanted her to have a bench trial, where the judge serves as both a juror and judge. O’Neal fought for a jury trial.

“My attorney argued that she thought it was inappropriate—he sided with the university so I ended up having what you call a bench trial,” O’Neal said. According to the Florida State Courts Web site, a bench trial is when a judge serves as judge and juror. 

The first judge did not think the case was important enough to have a jury trial. Then O’Neal and Mattox appealed the case to the First District Appeals Court where it was ruled that O’Neal had a constitutional right.

O’Neal and Mattox then took the case to the First District Appeals Court where it was ruled that O’Neal had a constitutional right to have a trial by jury. 

Carl Peterson, the attorney representing FAMU, said he did not agree with the decision.

“I thought that Judge (Thomas) Bateman got it right the first time, but my opinion and Judge Bateman’s opinion are not the law anymore,” he said.

O’Neal was awarded $250,000 for the lawsuit. Peterson said that money will come from the Florida Department of Financial Services.

“The university is disappointed in the jury verdict,” Peterson said. “[The university] does not believe that it did anything to discriminate or retaliate against Mrs. O’Neal.”