When the University of Central Florida set out to find those responsible for the controversy surrounding Colbourn Hall, the four employees UCF moved to fire were first made an offer: resign voluntarily and keep their reputation intact or be fired with the option to fight the decision at a predetermination hearing.
That’s according to the husband of Lee Kernek, one of the employees UCF wants fired.
“I am not going to sit back and let them destroy my wife when she did not do anything wrong. She follows the rules,” Keith Kernek said. “And she will not be resigning.”
Knight News sat down with Keith Kernek after he said he and his wife effectively lost half of their household income because of UCF’s choice to make four “good, loyal, hardworking employees” the scapegoat of what he believes is a flawed Burby report.
“It hurts. It’s totally unjustified,” Keith said.
UCF made the resignation offer Friday morning, January 18, according to Kernek, with five business days to return with a decision. The termination was instead announced that day before the Board of Trustees met at 3 p.m.
And when news of the president’s punishment for the controversy was announced by BOT Chairman Marcos Marchena – a cut in an annual bonus – Kernek was not pleased with how the stakes for UCF’s biggest decision-maker fell monumentally short of the ‘unjustified’ punishment given to his wife and three others, he believes.
“They are senior employees but not UCF’s decision-makers. They lose everything and Whittaker, a key decision-maker, gets a slap on the wrist?!,” said Keith. “Let me see if I understand this: the people who did not make the decision tried to hide the decision from those who made the decision? These four need to be hired back.”
Allegedly, one of the four employees, John Pittman, did not know of E&G funds (the money used inappropriately to build Trevor Colbourn Hall) until he saw their explanation in the newspaper. Pittman’s role at the university centered around managing debt rather than delegating money to new construction or managing E&G funds whatsoever, sources told Knight News.
In the termination notice, the university cited an investigative report created by private international law firm Bryan Cave and lead investigator Joseph Burby, limited in scope by the UCF Board of Trustees Chairman.
Keith believes an unfair and suggestive interrogation by Joseph Burby took place when his wife Lee was interviewed. The account struck parallels with former UCF President John C. Hitt in which he described the Burby encounter via letter as “unexpectedly adversarial” while being “led to say some things that were not accurate.” Other sources further detailed an interview process that left employees in tears after speaking with Burby.
Knight News asked UCF if Burby wanted to comment in his own defense but UCF did not respond.
Marchena ultimately stepped down from his post as BOT Chairman in front of the Florida Board of Governors on January 31 in an effort to show sincerity in how he approached the matter, he said to the Board and on social media.
The former Chairman’s decision did not win enough hearts to halt the investigation, however, but Kernek believed it to be a step in the right direction while fiercely maintaining his wife’s innocence.
Knight News obtained a summary of Burby’s interview with Lee Kernek dated October 2018. It was marked confidential and only released after Knight News hired a lawyer to negotiate with UCF to provide the public record even though the university took the position that it didn’t have to supply the document.
The summary noted that “currently, Merck, President (Hitt) and Provost (Whittaker) review and decide on final CIP (Capital Improvement Plan).”
“It’s then presented to the BOT F&F Committee; if they approve, it goes to the BOT for approval; the plan is then submitted to the BOG and then the Legislature, who decides what projects to fund,” the attorney’s interview document states. And in bold letters: “[Lee] did not know that E&G funds couldn’t be used for capital projects until this year after State AG Audit.”
To the Board of Trustees, the results of the Burby report paint a different picture. Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Garvey maintains that the four senior leaders employed deception to ensure that the funds would be used for the project at hand. The report alleges that the employees, in one part or another, began to use the funds without fully understanding their limits, but later learned their inappropriate use and moved forward anyway.
“The Board of Trustees understands the gravity of this violation of statutory requirements and the public’s trust. The misuse of state funds is never acceptable. That’s why the board committed to a thorough, transparent and independent investigation. That investigation found that Bill Merck, the former CFO, and senior leaders of his team purposefully took inappropriate and deceptive actions,” said Garvey’s comment, written by Vice President Grant Heston, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
“President Whittaker said from the beginning that when he was provost he never knew and was never told that Merck’s actions were wrong and inappropriate. The Bryan Cave independent investigation confirmed that.”
“President Whittaker continues to have my full support, particularly in terms of the decisive action he is taking to fix these problems. His leadership has been, and will continue to be, essential to UCF. Through the aggressive actions he has taken, President Whittaker is demonstrating his commitment and ability to deal with this awful situation and return UCF to the high regard it has earned over the years.”
Keith refuted the BOT’s response to the report as a cover to save the Board’s reputation as the House of Representatives continues their independent investigation.
“How did the guy who was the Chair of the University Budget Committee, the guy who managed a complex budget, suddenly overnight, when the Audit Report was announced, now know nothing?”
Clark, Kernek, Pittman, and Tant, among ten others – including President Whittaker and Hitt – have been subpoenaed before the House of Representatives to testify in their ongoing investigation.
Stay tuned with Knight News for coverage of the events.