A D.C. lawyer who has spent almost a decade digging into the inner workings of GW says he may have found a case within the business school that will be hard to ignore.
Ari Wilkenfeld, 43, said the business school is one of most dysfunctional departments at GW, and he has spent weeks crafting a discrimination complaint that could unearth details of the school’s biggest scandal. He said the complaint, filed with the District’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission this month, could shed light on the school’s $13 million overspending last year that officials have still kept under wraps.
The case alleges that a faculty leader was passed over for an administrative post dealing with the school’s finances because of gender discrimination. He said he would not be able to provide specifics to protect his client from retaliation – what he calls a common occurrence at GW.
Once the complaint moves to court, Wilkenfeld says he will subpoena GW for documents associated with it, which he says have been kept hidden because they reveal details about the school’s massive overspending.
When officials discovered the millions in missing funds last summer, then-dean Doug Guthrie was fired. A year later, faculty are wondering where the money was spent.
“They have a vault of documents. There’s something in the vault that they don’t want anyone to see,” Wilkenfeld said. “They’re not sleeping on the job when it comes to the School of Business. They are protecting something. They are trying to keep something from getting out.”
Breaking open the vault
When Guthrie was fired, faculty alleged Guthrie and other school leaders were doubly compensated for their work laying the foundation for a GW campus in China, skimming money off the top of funds allocated to become GW’s China nest egg. Guthrie has denied these claims, but questions surrounding the reason for his sudden departure have continued.
Scheherazade Rehman, who led the Faculty Senate for the past year, was at the center of the debate as she pushed other faculty leaders to increase their scrutiny over GW’s operations in China. Her months of skepticism before Guthrie was fired, as shown in dozens of emails obtained by the Hatchet, set up the backdrop for Guthrie’s firing and GW’s eventual scaling back of the ambitious plan.
Rehman, who is the director of the European Union Research Center and a professor of international finance, said getting to the bottom of the millions of dollars in overspending would help the school move past the budget disaster.
“It depends on the issue, but if you’re talking about what happened last summer, where we lost a dean and we had a deficit in our budget, transparency is always the best way forward so we don’t make the same missteps,” she said.
She said the murkiness has stalled progress this year as professors wait for a new dean to take the helm, especially at a University where faculty expect to be kept in the loop.
“I think it creates confusion when full-disclosure and information is not given to faculty,” she said. “It creates frustration. And when you have a lack of information, people tend to fill it up with their imagination, which is not a good way to move forward.”
‘Throwing up a wall’
Wilkenfeld, now represents six clients with complaints against the University – ranging from former University Police officers to faculty across GW’s schools. His steady stream of GW-related cases is continuing to grow because he said officials aren’t taking necessary steps to fix what he called pervasive institutional problems.
Through his GW clients, which make up about half of his overall caseload, Wilkenfeld says he has seen dozens of examples of discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation and an overall repressive culture.
He said each case has been a red flag that should have signaled a need for widespread changes, but so far little has been done.
Earlier this year, University officials came under scrutiny after 11 former and current employees warned of a “culture of repression” that perpetuates retaliation against employees who file complaints. Still, a 14-month GW study released in November found a “culture of openness and transparency” on campus.
Meanwhile, Wilkenfeld said staff in the University’s Office of General Counsel “throw up their hands and put up a wall” with each new lawsuit, often waiting for the cases to proceed to court. He said that’s unlike cases he’s dealt with at other institutions, which will accept settling if a case is strong.
They’re playing a wait-and-see game, he said, hoping that a client may not want to shell out the additional money for bringing a case to court. That wager, he said, in part shows that there are documents they do not want to turn over.
“They’re not going to burn anything. But it’s only a matter of time before somebody brings the right lawsuit and subpoenas the right records,” he said. “And I think right now, they’re trying to hold it off for as long as they can, but at some point one of us is going to get in there and we’ll finally know everything.”
He said he thinks the employees are exhausted from spending the past few years “cascading from one crisis to the next” as the University has faced the unranking from U.S. News & World Report, the departure of three deans and October’s need-aware admissions scandal.
Staff in the office, which handles all of the University’s internal legal proceedings, declined to sit for an interview through University spokeswoman Candace Smith. She cited the University’s policy of not commenting on ongoing or potential litigation, or the lawyers who file them.
“It is important to remember, however, that allegations raised by lawyers retained to advocate for their clients’ position, are just that: allegations,” Smith said in a statement. “They represent one side of a dispute. The University reviews allegations in each case and responds as appropriate.”
Wilkenfeld, who has represented employees’ cases for two decades, opened his own law firm just five months ago. And while the first year of a new business can be rocky, he said the cases against GW have made him confident that the firm will grow.
Experts said employment law lawyers like Wilkenfeld can become de facto specialists in one company through referrals. After one lawsuit, others who have faced similar problems tend to seek out the lawyer who has already demonstrated deeply rooted knowledge of the company – a move that saves them time and money and builds a foundation for new firms.
Wilkenfeld grew up surrounded by impressive lawyers – his grandfather argued a case in front of the Supreme Court and was a founding partner of the prestigious D.C. law firm Arent Fox.
As Wilkenfeld carves out his legacy, he has so far made a name for himself filing cases against GW.
Still, Wilkenfeld’s partner, Rosalind Herendeen, said she hopes GW makes institutional changes, so they can move on to “fixing” other employers.
“There’s never going to be a complete end, but people need to see that there are consequences,” Herendeen said.