Former employee: They are not going to keep me quiet
By Cheryl Hehl, Staff Writer
Mary Roman believes silence means acceptance and there is no way she is keeping quiet about howKeanUniversityofficials treat their employees. Especially when the employee knows too much.
Roman began her career at Kean in 2001 as a secretary in the University
Relations Department. She ended it in a three-foot cubicle in the mailroom of the state university, banished and left with nothing to do but collect her $70,000 salary.
Her story, she believes, is reflective of what happens when an employee under President Dawood Farahi begins to ask too many questions. Or they want to move someone else into a job that is occupied.
In the beginning, the university was more than happy with Roman’s work ethic and ability to multi-task, she said. In fact, she was promoted multiple times until moved into the position of professional services specialist.
As an assistant special events coordinator on and off campus, the former university employee readily admitted that 25 years of working in the airline industry gave her the solid background required to oversee special events at Kean.
“I worked hard, took on more responsibility and ended up pre-planning events, working with vendors, handling reservations for land, air and ground, along with crowd control for events,” she explained, adding that some of the promotional events she handled included commencements and homecoming events.
But that all ended in August 2009 when she was “unwillingly and abruptly” transferred to the purchasing department by Audry Kelly and several other superiors.
Audry Kelly, an employee of the university since 1998, earns $129,000 a year as the executive assistant of Kean’s board of trustees since July 2004, when she was appointed to this position. She also is the ex-wife of former Union County manager George Devanney, who is the nephew of Democratic Sen. Ray Lesniak.
Kelly is now the wife of former Union County Alliance head Michael Murray, who abruptly resigned last December after LocalSource brought out that little work was being done by the non-profit that received $325,000 annually from the county to do economic development related work.
Lesniak also managed to get his sister, Margaret Devanney, a position at Kean for $86,800 a year. This is a job that sources maintain is a no-show position.
Roman, though, was not surprised when this news broke last November in LocalSource because, “it was typical of what goes on there.” However, even Roman was taken back by where she ended up.
“They segregated me in that cubicle because I knew the head of that department was favoring certain vendors for inexpensive university related promotional gifts,” Roman said.
The Kean employee stayed in the mailroom cubicle until Feb. 28, 2011 when she, along with 11 others, were laid off. Ten were women, with six of the 12 African-American and two Latino, according to Kean Federation of Teachers President James Castiglione.
“The nature of the layoffs was discriminatory in impact, if not intent,” said the teachers union president, adding that this seems clear since the majority of the 12 employees laid off were in minority groups.
“They said it was because there was a $17.6 million deficit but that turned out not to be true,” Roman explained.
The university actually had $17 million in surplus that year, but Roman was never called back to her job because, she said, it already had been filled by Kelly’s secretary’s sister.
According to Castiglione, Kean saved $301,642 when they laid off the 12 employees in 2011. He also noted that of all nine state universities, Kean is the only one to ever lay off employees in the history of the state.
“Actually about 30 years ago one of the universities did have layoffs, but no one lost their job because all the employees were placed in other jobs,” said the KFT president.
Meanwhile, because the employees at Kean are part of a union, their contract stipulates that the university has to allow former employees to apply for positions that become available, if they are qualified. Roman began applying for positions that became available, but she never was hired for those positions. Not once.
“I watched as one unqualified person after another was hired, while I, who had a history with Kean, was not,” Roman said, backing up her claim by supplying LocalSource with resumes of several employees hired since she was laid off who had no previous experience.
“They said I wasn’t qualified because I didn’t have a degree, but New Jersey Civil Service Commission clearly states that experience can be substituted,” the former employee said.
Although discouraged by this, Roman refused to back down or give up her fight for justice. Instead she began using the Open Public Records Act to obtain copies of documents to support the claims she believed to be true. But university officials did not make that easy for her either.
“I had to file a complaint with the New Jersey Government Records Council because they refused to give me what the OPRA law clearly allows,” Roman said.
Thanks to the records council Roman was able to get most of the documents she requested, but not all. Among the records she did receive, though, was information about business Kean did with several suppliers of inexpensive promotional products. Regardless, Kean paid heavily for the products they purchased from two of the vendors over several years.
For example, from 2002 through 2011, the Kean purchasing department ordered and received $1.2 million in goods from Proforma AYR Graphics and Painting in Roselle Park and $444,154 in goods from Vital II of Hampton, New York.
Although initially the annual expenditure was below $20,000 at Proforma for promotional items, that number jumped significantly in 2005, just a year and a few months after Farahi took over as president in late 2003.
For instance, while in 2002, prior to when Farahi became president, the tab for promotional items from Proforma AYR was only $19,636. However, in 2005 that number began to climb when the university incurred bills tallying $115,962. Likewise, in 2006 Kean spent $102,284 and $115,948 in 2008.
In 2009 the amount ordered from this vendor went up alarmingly to $202,633 and even more in 2010 to $275,300. Finally, in 2011 the university spent $329,156 with this vendor, but it is unknown what was purchased or where these good went.
According to records obtained by Roman, the university did not order anything from Vital II from 2002 through 2006, but in 2007 that began to change. From just $3,247 in 2007, Kean began to spend more with this vendor, ultimately ending up with tabs of $108,727 in 2009 and $218,180 in 2010.
It should be noted that the contracts with these two vendors used by Kean, a state university, were not state contracts. Had Kean used state contracts, expenditures this high might have been questioned, a source at the university said.
Over the many months since Roman was laid off, she has continued to try and make someone at the university hear her case, or at least investigate what took place. But her pleas fell on deaf ears.
In August, Roman even wrote to Kean Board of Trustee Chair Ada Morell, saying “there are no human rights at Kean University but discrimination is alive and well.”
In the letter Roman describes how she was treated.
“George Thorn, director of Purchasing, intimidated me, tried to make me look incompetent, dehumanized me and then sent a fraudulent document to Human Resources stating that my position as ‘senior furniture buyer’ can be eliminated and I should be laid off,” Roman said.
Roman never received a response from Morell, but she was not surprised.
“Wouldn’t that raise flags to Middle States,” she said, referring to the accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, that put Kean on probation July 2 for being in violation of five of the 12 standards required to keep accreditation.
Middle States will be at Kean Thursday and Friday to see if the university is now in compliance with the standards they violated. But it will be November before Kean hears if they will remain on probation, are taken off probation or have to “show cause” why the accreditation they have held since 1960 should not be removed.
Regardless, Roman intends to file a complaint with Middle States, she said, so the accrediting agency is aware of “what is going on at Kean University.” She also sent all the information she gathered to the United States Secretary of Education.
Roman admits it has been a rough road the last few years. But even though her home burned down right after she lost her job, this former Kean employee never mentioned it.
Her only thought, Roman said, was to try and bring justice to a situation she believes was unfair. Not just for herself, but for those who may not have a voice.
Roman said she will carry the torch for those who lost their jobs at Kean along with her as well as the 47 other people at Kean whose positions were eliminated in the last few years.
“You know, they are not going to keep me quiet. Someone has to speak up and explain what is going on there,” she said, adding that it might as well be her.
Roman’s previous experience as a victim’s advocate and claims investigator, she said, taught her the importance of having documentation, having a voice and that “sometimes you have to forgo protocol to be righteously heard.”