Ex-University of Maine System official: University of Arkansas created hostile work environment before firing

Posted Aug. 27, 2013, at 3:57 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 27, 2013, at 5:04 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Former University of Maine spokesman and state legislator John Diamond responded Monday to the University of Arkansas firing him last week by releasing a letter in which he accused a UA official of interfering with the release of public information to the news media, making inappropriate remarks about religion and race and creating a hostile and threatening work environment.

Diamond’s letter to Chris Wyrick, vice chancellor for university advancement, ignited a war of words with University of Arkansas officials, who held a news conference Monday to respond to Diamond’s allegations. University of Arkansas officials also released a letter from chancellor G. David Gearhart that was strongly critical of Diamond.

Diamond was tapped to serve as UA ’s associate vice chancellor for university relations in September 2010 after a 21-year career as an administrator at UMaine, most recently as executive director of external affairs for the University of Maine System.

Wyrick acknowledged late last week that Diamond was fired, effective at the end of September, but said Diamond asked that a letter documenting the dismissal not be made public pending a ruling from the state attorney general on whether it must be disclosed, the Des Moines Register reported Saturday.

Wyrick was promoted to his current post on April 1 to replace former UA vice chancellor Brad Choate, who was fired after overspending his department’s budget by millions of dollars, according to published reports.

Diamond said that he asked that documents pertaining to his firing be withheld until he was given the opportunity to attach a written response, which he released Monday along with two letters of termination Wyrick sent him on Friday.

In his letters to Diamond, Wyrick wrote that he had planned to demote Diamond from his position as associate vice chancellor of communication to associate vice chancellor of campaign communications and then terminate his employment at the end of December because “the University’s senior leadership had lost faith in you.”

Wyrick further stated that because of Diamond’s conduct during and after a meeting on Thursday last week, “there is no repairing our working relationship.” He subsequently gave Diamond an immediate 30-day notice of termination, effective Sept. 22, along with instructions to remove his personal belongings and return any university-issued keys and paper and electronic records in his possession.

Wyrick said he would provide assignments to Diamond by email or text to be performed from Diamond’s home through the end of his employment.

In his response to Wyrick, Diamond said he believes he was fired because he had raised concerns about the University of Arkansas’ handling of Freedom of Information Act requests.

For the past several months, the university has resisted releasing information detailing overspending in its advancement division, which includes the school’s fundraising, alumni and public relations arms, according to the Des Moines Register article. It also hasn’t released the division’s budget for the current fiscal year or said how it balanced last year’s budget.

In his letter to Wyrick, Diamond wrote that Wyrick’s handling of a July 22 freedom of information request from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette “was causing unjustifiable delays in fulfilling the University’s legal obligations to respond.”

Diamond’s letter also described what he called a hostile and threatening work environment created by “impulsive, threatening and offensive statements and actions you have engaged in affecting me and other members of the university community” and by “imposing serious, disruptive and secretive changes in personnel appointments with little regard to the stress it places on affected individuals, their colleagues and Division operations.”

Diamond cited the following instances of statements Wyrick allegedly made to him and in group settings that he characterized as “offensive and threatening.”

— Upon Diamond and Wyrick’s first one-on-one meeting after Wyrick’s official start as vice chancellor, Wyrick allegedly pointed Diamond out to two colleagues and noted that Diamond is Catholic and said “y’all travel in packs.”

— In late April, Diamond said, Wyrick reportedly asked the school’s associate vice chancellor for alumni affairs if he was the only “white guy” who attended a Black Alumni Society fundraiser and then twice referred to him as “Brother Honky” during the remainder of a meeting.

— Diamond said that on two occasions, Wyrick told him he needed to replace the “old guy” who works part time on Diamond’s staff because Wyrick said he saw him not helping another staff member set up for May commencement ceremonies.

— Diamond also alleged that he saw Wyrick “threaten a shocked and emotionally distraught employee with possible termination if she told anyone other than her husband that [Wyrick] was reassigning her to another unit within the the Division.”

Diamond denied Wyrick’s claims that he called Wyricks’ leadership “laughable” and that he contacted the news media about his situation.

A University of Arkansas spokesman said Monday night that the university held a news conference earlier in the day to respond to Diamond’s allegations and issued a copy of a letter from the chancellor sent to the school’s president and board of trustees.

In that letter, Chancellor Gearhart said that Diamond was dismissed because he had been “argumentative, inflexible, insubordinate and aloof. … Diamond has been very defensive of his former boss, Brad Choate, who hired him, and continued to maintain a very close and inappropriate relationship with Choate during a time he was serving as our chief spokesperson, a clear conflict of interest.”

With regard to Diamond’s allegation that he was fired because he had a different philosophy of transparency with the public, Gearhart wrote:

“In reality, Diamond has always insisted that all communication with the media come through him and that my senior team should not answer any media inquiries directly,” Gearhart said. “Any lack of transparency with the media or the public can only be attributed to Diamond’s own failings as that was his primary responsibility. “

The University of Arkansas’ manager of media relations, Steve Voorhies, said Monday night that Wyrick told reporters who attended the news conference that his “Brother Honky” remarks were made as a “running joke” and not intended to be racist.

Voorhies said that Wyrick disputed Diamond’s version of the remark Diamond considered anti-Catholic.

Wyrick said during the news conference that what he actually said was “What time is the fish fry on Friday?” and that he did not think that was offensive.

When a reporter asked him for comment about that, Diamond said he told that reporter, “Where I come from, that’s clearly mocking Catholics. And [Wyrick] dismissed it, saying he did not think it was offensive.”

Voorhies said Wyrick denied making the “old guy” statement and that he denied making the woman who was being reassigned cry.

Wyrick said he told the staffer that she was asked not to share the information because she was being given an early heads up because she was going on vacation and another employee who was involved wasn’t going to be told of the change until the following week.

Asked whether he planned to file a lawsuit against the university, Diamond said, “It’s premature to discuss that.” He said Monday night that he has not hired an attorney.

Diamond said he had read Gearhart’s letter on a newspaper website.

“There are allegations there that are not supported by the facts nor by the documentation that I have from the chancellor and from others. It underscores the trouble I’ve been having with members of the university administration honoring the spirit and letter of the law when it comes to [the Freedom of Information Act] and to the insensitive and inappropriate comments made in group settings that contribute to a hostile work environment.”

Diamond served four terms as a Democrat in the Maine House of Representatives during the 1980s, including two terms as House majority leader. While in Maine he was active in many community groups, including serving as chairman of the board of directors for the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

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