Bullying, forgery accusations fly at SCF trustees meeting

chawes@bradenton.comJune 20, 2012 

MANATEE -- The attorney general's office will be asked to investigate an allegation of forgery against Lars Hafner, president of the State College of Florida, following a 5-2 vote by the college's Board of Trustees that visibly angered a packed audience of SCF staff members Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, Hafner has accused board chair Carlos Beruff of violating a state statute that renders college employees' evaluations confidential. Hafner also accused Beruff of bullying Hafner and risking the college's reputation for the sake of what Hafner called Beruff's personal and political agenda against him.

Beruff's accusations stem from a 2010 state grant application for SCF's Collegiate School charter school. Beruff presented documents that he said raised the question of whether Hafner forged the signature of former board president Steve Harner. Hafner contends he signed Harner's name to the document with Harner's permission.

Beruff's questions about the grant application were among several points he raised at the start of Tuesday's meeting to assert that Hafner had taken actions "inconsistent with his position" that illustrated his "troubling managerial style."

"I do not have confidence in him as a satisfactory person to lead this college," Beruff said. In addition to his concerns about Hafner signing Harner's name, Beruff cited Hafner's press for the DEAL, which was to be a coalition of local organizations, led by SCF, to build a cross-county business incubator; his expansion of SCF's women's tennis program; and funding for the Collegiate School, which board members were recently told had cost the college almost $5 million.

"This board must have an executive administrator. This board does not need a creative entrepreneur operating on his own," Beruff said.

Hafner countered by sharing his recollection of a private conversation Beruff had with him about nine months ago. He accused Beruff of telling Hafner, "If you don't go quietly, I'm going to ruin you and ruin your reputation."

"This has been nine months of, basically, a witch hunt, and of you bullying me," Hafner said to Beruff. "You've been doing it in private so other board members were not aware of what you're saying or doing."

After the meeting, Hafner also said he was exploring whether Beruff violated state statutes by sharing information about Hafner's evaluation. He cited a state statute that renders the personnel records of state college employees, including their evaluations, as confidential unless the employee authorizes their release.

The question of forgery developed into a battle of affidavits as Tuesday's special meeting, called by Beruff, progressed. Beruff presented an affidavit from attorney Greg Porges, whom Beruff had hired privately to research the forgery question, in which Porges said Harner did not authorize Hafner to sign the grant application in his stead.

Hafner presented an affidavit directly from Harner, in which Harner stated he believed that in up to four instances he had authorized Hafner to sign his name on Harner's behalf and with Harner's "direction and instruction." Harner could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Board member Jennifer Saslaw, one of two to vote against taking the case to the attorney general, said she had spoken directly to Harner and been told that Hafner's signature on the application was made with Harner's approval. Saslaw also questioned Beruff's process in raising his concerns, saying she "cannot imagine proceeding when we've just been handed an inch-and-a-half stack of documents." Beruff provided his packet of accusations and concerns to board members just prior to the start of the 5 p.m. meeting.

Joe Miller, the other board member to vote against involving the attorney general, accused Beruff of ignoring deliberations that both he and Beruff were part of during the previous board's tenure. He also questioned whether Beruff had political motives and was attacking Hafner at the behest of Gov. Rick Scott, whose agenda has included eliminating tenure for university employees and cutting the pay of university and college presidents. Both issues have been raised by Scott's appointees to the SCF board.

"Ever since you've been chairman, you've done nothing but attack this college or attack the staff," Miller said. "I'm not sure who's running things, the governor or this board." Miller's comments drew applause from the crowd of about 100, mostly staff members, that attended the meeting, which was moved to the student union to accommodate the large audience.

Board members Beruff, Craig Triguiero, Lori Moran, Ann Moore, and Charlene Neal voted to take the case to the attorney general. Ed Bailey was absent.

The discussion featured numerous emotional moments, including Hafner barking at Beruff, "Don't touch me," and the audience scoffing and applauding frequently. Triguiero triggered a loud round of boos when he compared the situation to Penn State; he later apologized for the comment.

Judge Ed Nicholas, a member of the SCF Foundation, offered a stinging criticism of the SCF board, accusing it of "destroying the morale of this school" and driving away donors.

"I don't think you've considered at all the impact this will have on the foundation," Nicholas said. And on campus, he said, "Everyone is walking around on eggshells, and your micromanagement style is destructive."

Ron Allen, a former SCF board president, accused the current board of trying to alter the decisions of previous boards. He said the question over funding for the Collegiate School was a manufactured issue because there never was any expectation that the charter school would repay what was invested in it, anymore than any other branch of the university is expected to repay its startup costs.

Christine Hawes, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.

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