Responding to litigation filed by his predecessor, Lander University President Richard Cosentino and the institution said there was no wrongdoing while doubling down on some past statements and denying others.
Former President Dan Ball is suing Cosentino, both as president and an individual, Lander University, its trustees and the Lander Foundation. The filing, which claims defamation, takes issue with his treatment and the actions of defending parties in relation to the state Office of Inspector General’s investigation into allegations of misconduct and misspending, including that no release or statement was issued telling the public the probe had closed without criminal charges.
The answer was filed Wednesday in Greenwood County court on behalf of all defendants by William H. Davidson II of Columbia-based Davidson, Wren & Plyer, P.A. Ball is represented by Laura C. Waring of Grimball & Cabaniss, LLC of Charleston.
Ball filed the lawsuit on March 15, initially naming The Index-Journal Co. as one of the plaintiffs. Ball contended the newspaper, which was working on a larger project about the Lander Foundation investigations, had erred in not reporting that the investigations had ended without criminal charges.
The newspaper was dropped from the lawsuit after it published a front-page story reporting that no criminal charges resulted from an OIG investigation and subsequent State Law Enforcement Division investigation into how money was spent at the Lander Foundation. An amended complaint was filed March 27.
Waring and a spokeswoman for Lander declined to comment.
The plaintiffs denied a number of statements Ball’s filing attributed to Cosentino:
• In the complaint, Ball alleges “Cosentino told Vice President (Gary) McCombs in the presence of others ‘I’m going to destroy Dan Ball!!’”
• During one foundation board meeting, then-acting recording secretary Myra Greene, who was Lander’s director of alumni affairs, heard Cosentino say to the board that this was a “hands behind the back handcuffs moment,” the complaint said, telling the board “you are going to be so shocked when the report comes out.”
• At another meeting, Greene heard Cosentino tell board members he had talked to other university presidents about “the criminal activity at his school and that an investigation was pending,” the complaint said. During the investigation, an internal audit of financial records did not find any evidence of criminal activity.
• The complaint alleges that Cosentino slandered Ball by accusing him of criminal, unethical and immoral conduct and that he pursued prosecution against Ball with an ulterior purpose. It also alleges Cosentino misrepresented Ball’s actions to investigators, reporters, board members and the public, and worked with others for the purpose of damaging Ball’s reputation.
While these were denied, Cosentino admitted to talking with the newspaper for a June 21, 2018 story headlined “Lander University passes $78 million budget” that quoted him as saying: “We have more debt than I’d like, more debt than I would have allowed, and that affects our cash flow and it affects our ability to address things like salaries.”
In the answer, Davidson writes that “These Defendants would however, by way of explanation, admit that Lander University at that time did in fact have more debt than would have been liked by Defendant Cosentino in his opinion.”
At the end of that fiscal year, which was nine days after the story published, Lander University had $19.5 million left on a general obligation bond and the Lander Foundation had $11.4 million in debt, according to audited financial statements the university posted to lander.edu. Lander covers the majority of what’s paid toward the Foundation’s debt through rental agreements.
The defendants also admitted “that as a result of questionable financial practices regarding Lander University and Lander Foundation, the Office of Inspector General was requested to perform an audit of the records to determine if there was any impropriety.” The filing also said no charged were filed as the result of a SLED investigation and the school issued no statement once the probe concluded.
In his lawsuit, Ball says a false allegation is circling that he used state funds to remodel his house at 217 Stanley Ave., which sits across the street from Lander. He is adamant that neither he nor his wife “used any state money for the renovations of their home.”
However, Ball alleges OIG investigator Edward Lopes told “former Lander Foundation Board Member Wayne Carstens that Ball paid ‘200 and some thousand for his current house’ and that ‘there was [sic] a lot of renovations done, a lot of stuff done and paid for with State money.’”
His lawyer writes that no investigator asked Ball about how he paid for renovations, and Ball denies any state funds were used to renovate the house. The renovations are not mentioned in any investigative report or interview notes from the OIG or SLED.
The OIG is not a party on the lawsuit. In the answer to the complaint, Davidson writes “Defendants lack sufficient information upon which to form a belief as to the truth and veracity” of whether Lopes made the statement.
Ball also claims Greene overheard Cosentino say in reference to Ball’s residence: “We’ll get that house.” Cosentino and the university deny he made the statement. The lawsuit does not say Cosentino made an allegation about the source of funds for any remodeling.
Property records point to a possible source of funds for remodeling — one common among American homeowners seeking to invest in their property.
The couple borrowed money.
After buying their house on March 30, 2012 for $225,000, the couple had a $211,500 mortgage. The Balls increased the size of their mortgage twice within five months of buying the house, reaching a total debt against the home of $313,000. The couple also took out two revolving lines of credit — one for $50,000 in 2016 and one for $99,000 in 2017. Property records don’t show how much of that credit they used.
Between the credit lines and the additional funds made available by increasing the size of the mortgage, the Balls had potentially more than $250,000 to put toward renovations or other expenses.
In addition to his salary, which ranged from $146,618 to $156,779 during his last three years at Lander, he also received a housing stipend as part of his contract that started off at $33,000 and was raised to $40,000 for his last year at the university, according to state ethics filings. That stipend could be used toward the mortgage payments. Before moving into the house, Ball lived in the president’s house at Lander and did not receive a housing stipend. The couple was prompted to move by the deteriorating condition of that house, which was located on Durst Avenue and has since been taken down.
All notes were satisfied as part of the couple selling their house on Sept. 27, 2018 for $400,000.
In his lawsuit, Ball said the false allegation about using state money to improve the Stanley Avenue residence caused issues when he first tried to sell it.
“When the Ball’s home went on the market in spring 2018,” his attorney wrote, “a prospective home buyer was asked why he would want to buy a house that former president Ball remodeled using state money for the remodel.”
In their court filings, Ball and the university present different views on Lander’s regional accreditation — a benchmark for institutional quality that ensures students access to federal aid — through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS.
“During Dr. Ball’s tenure, two regional accreditations were performed by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. ... During Dr. Ball’s presidency, Lander was accredited both times without incident,” the civil complaint said.
As the Index-Journal reported last month, accreditation reaffirmation is a 10-year process that was completed just once — in 2007 — while Ball was president, according to the SACS.
In responding to the lawsuit, the attorney for the university notes the concerns raised by the accreditor as it was completing its 2017 reaffirmation.
“Defendants would admit that during the Plaintiff’s tenure, Lander University was evaluated by the Southern Association of Colleges and School Commission on Colleges which issued various reports concerning their findings and any deficiencies they may have noted at Lander University,” the answer said.
During the 2017 reaffirmation — a process that started in 2015 — SACS found the school was not compliant with 27 requirements. A core requirement it didn’t meet was having enough professors to teach its students.
During a September 2017 Lander trustee meeting, interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Suzanne Ozment said 3 in 5 Lander faculty members were overloaded with courses in 2015, with some teaching an overload of more than 10 additional credit hours.
The university was able to show enough progress in addressing the findings that it was able to maintain its accreditation without facing sanctions.
The defendants listed nearly two dozen potential defenses against Ball’s claims, including:
• The claim of defamation is barred by either absolute privilege or qualified privilege, as well as the First Amendment. Absolute and qualified privilege covers statements a defendant has a right to make, such as something said during court proceedings or written in an official report.
• Ball is a public official within the context of the alleged statements.
• Any comments made were about a matter of public concern.
• Any statements were either matters or opinion or substantially true.
• Some alleged statements are barred by statute of limitations, while others are privileged as fair reports.