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Potential firing of UH athletics director for concert debacle won't be easy

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Honolulu (HawaiiNewsNow) – The man at the center of the University of Hawaii's failed Stevie Wonder concert has a contract that allows him to be fired for "deliberate or serious" violations of his duties.

But trying to fire UH Athletics Director Jim Donovan "for cause" could be expensive and difficult, according to a lawyer experienced at dealing with cases like these.   

Donovan is on paid leave as the university investigates what lead to the cancellation of the Aug. 18 Stevie Wonder concert that was supposed to be a fundraiser for UH athletics. 

Donovan's five-year contract pays him $240,000 a year and expires March 23, 2013. 

If UH officials decide they want to fire Donovan "for cause" without paying him anything, it won't be easy. 

"Proving cause is always tough.  And it costs money," said attorney Jim Bickerton, who has represented several professors in employment disputes with UH in recent years.  Bickerton reviewed a copy of Donovan's ten-page contract at the request of Hawaii News Now. 

"It would have to be a serious violation of an established rule or policy,"
Bickerton said. "So you would have to be able to point to something in the university regulations that was actually broken.  Mere bad judgment probably would not be considered a serious violation." 

Donovan's contract also says the UH can terminate him without cause. To do that, the school would have to give him two months written notice and then pay him for the remainder of his contract. 

"The employers often opt to go without cause and just pay the severance package, rather than spend a lot of court time and a lot of resources arguing with the employee whether it was with or without cause," Bickerton said. 

Bickerton said if UH had to go to court to justify Donovan's firing, that move could be bad for the university's image, exposing other problems on the campus and harming the reputations of other people.

Since only a few months remain on Donovan's contract, Bickerton said, "Because we're so late in the day, a severance package isn't going to cost the university that much." 

If UH gave Donovan his 60-days notice this week, the university would have to pay him for the remaining six months of his contract, about $120,000, a relatively small amount compared to fighting things out in court or in arbitration, Bickerton said. 

If this incident happened in the first year of Donovan's five-year deal Bickerton would recommend trying to fire him "for cause," to avoid paying Donovan more than $1 million for the remainder of his contract. 

Donovan has declined our request for an interview.   

Donovan was already on thin-ice with UH officials, sources said. 

UH President MRC Greenwood and the UH Regents rejected Donovan's request to begin negotiations last year on his contract that expires next spring, a source said. 

A source said top UH officials believe Donovan made bad management choices such as wanting to extend the contract of former UH Head Football Coach Greg McMackin for three years.  Other UH officials overruled Donovan on that decision and on Donovan's initial proposal to pay McMackin the full $1.1 million remaining on his contract.  Instead, the UH paid McMackin half that amount. 

The UH replaced McMackin with current coach Norm Chow, a choice Donovan was not entirely happy with, a source said.  

The UH has also placed Stan Sheriff Center Manager Rich Sheriff on paid leave because of the botched Stevie Wonder concert. 

Sources said Donovan oversaw the concert deal and delegated its details to Sheriff who connected UH with local promoter Bob Peyton.  

Sheriff, who's been with UH since 1995, is a member of the Hawaii Government Employees Association government workers' union.  His pay ranges from $44,724 to $113,424, UH officials said.   

UH officials will have to follow the union's disciplinary process if they also decide to punish Sheriff, who declined our request for an interview. 

Sheriff has told friends that he handled the Stevie Wonder plans no differently from numerous other events he has overseen at the UH sports arena for the last 17 years. 

On July 10, the UH canceled the concert and refunded hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tickets sold for the event, because Wonder's agents said he had never committed to the concert.  UH officials said they made a deal with an "unauthorized third party," and wired $200,000 to a Miami talent agency as a deposit, money that has not been located since. 

Copyright 2012 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.

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