The Hazards of Whistle Blowing

Lansing Community College fires its lawyer after he accuses interim president of misspending state funds.
October 5, 2006

Two weeks ago, Timothy N. Zeller did a potentially risky thing: He reported on alleged misspending by his boss, the interim president of Lansing Community College. Last week, the college lawyer appears to have paid a dear price, in the loss of his job.

College officials are tight-lipped about the situation, saying only that his last day at the college was September 30. Beyond that, comment is inappropriate because it's a "personnel situation," said Tess Brown, director of college advancement.

Lansing has had a whole series of personnel situations of late, particularly in its upper tier of management. Last winter, its president, Paula Cunningham, quit amid escalating conflict with members of the two-year college's Board of Trustees.

Last month, Zeller sent a report to Michigan's auditor general last month accusing Cunningham's replacement, Interim President Judith Cardenas, with using institutional funds inappropriately. Among other things, he accused her of giving excessive overtime to her staff, handing out raises without following proper administrative procedures, and used college credit cards to give extravagant gifts to employees. Cardenas denied the charges in an article in the Lansing State Journal last month. "We're all people of integrity," she told the newspaper.

Zeller alerted the chairman of the college's Board of Trustees about the charges in a telephone call on the same day that he sent the report to the state auditor via e-mail, according to college officials. He was quickly suspended with pay, for reasons Lansing officials declined to explain.

Tuesday, the college posted a message on its Web site saying that it had begun its own internal investigation of the charges contained in Zeller's report. The college's full-time internal auditor, who reports to the audit committee of the Board of Trustees, said in a letter to the campus that he would seek to determine if the colleges' funds were misused or its policies violated.

Zeller could not be reached for comment, but the Lansing newspaper reported that members of the Lansing board were upset that the lawyer had reported the accusations to the state rather than bringing them first to the board.

According to the newspaper, Zeller said in an e-mail to the state auditor that he had contacted the state on the advice of a lawyer he had consulted, and that the fact that the allegations involved his superiors made them "awkward to handle." Officials in the auditor general's office did not return telephone calls seeking comment.


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