Greenwood asked for 100-percent confidence vote by regents
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -
A day after revealing University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood sent UH Regents a demand letter asking for a $2 million settlement to leave the university, Hawaii News Now has learned two of the conditions her lawyer tried unsuccessfully to attach to her withdrawal of the letter last week.
The ten-page letter from Greenwood's lawyer, Jerry Hiatt, claimed Gov. Neil Abercrombie pressured Greenwood to keep Jim Donovan as UH athletics director. She claimed she was defamed during State Senate hearings into the canceled Stevie Wonder concert, and said she would withdraw a threat to sue in exchange for a confidential settlement worth $2 million, more than four times her annual pay.
Greenwood lawyer withdrew the letter Nov. 6, more than a month after her lawyer wrote it on Oct. 2. That move intrigues lawyer Jim Bickerton, who has handled several employment disputes for UH faculty in recent years.
"In 30-something years of practicing law, I can't even remember someone withdrawing a demand letter. It's extremely unusual," Bickerton said.
Hiatt asked for several key conditions in exchange for withdrawing the letter. First, he requested that the regents give Greenwood a 100-percent vote of confidence, an impossible task since roughly one-third of the 15 regents no longer support her, sources said.
Another condition Greenwood asked for was that the regents protect her from political interference, sources said.
Regents lawyer Bill McCorriston said the regents did not accept any conditions in exchange for her taking back the demand letter. McCorriston said Wednesday he could "only confirm withdrawal was with no conditions." Hiatt did not return Hawaii News Now's phone call or email messages for comment on the proposed conditions Wednesday.
The regents will meet to discuss Greenwood's employment future for a fourth time behind closed doors Thursday, during an executive session of their monthly meeting held at UH Maui College in Kahului.
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D- Moanalua, Aiea, Kalihi Valley), who chaired the Senate briefings investigating the failed concert, called Greenwood's $2 million settlement offer extortion.
"She's claiming, after asking for advice, now claiming that it's pressure and wanting to extort $2 million from the university for a job that has pressure and pays very well," Kim said.
Greenwood is paid $427,000 a year, the highest salary of any executive in state government. If Greenwood is terminated without cause, her contract said UH would pay her one year's full salary of $475,000, provide up to two months of housing allowance worth $10,000 and reimbursement for moving expenses.
"This letter only confirms that it was Greenwood and not the legislature that put pressure on the regents to take up her contract," Kim said. "I know there were all kinds of speculation that we were putting pressure on the regents, but in fact this letter finally surfaces that she and her attorney are the ones that put the pressure on the regents."
When Greenwood testified before Kim's Senate committee, she described her meeting with Abercrombie like this: "The governor did not tell me to do something. He told me the circumstances and the political environment that was evolving and he gave me some advice on what my best political, my best actions would be. I took it that he was trying to give me advice in how to act in situation that had become increasingly inflamed."
But in her demand letter, Greenwood's lawyer claimed she received "direct pressure" at the meeting with Abercrombie to "abandon the settlement and to reinstate Mr. Donovan to the AD position."
"If you're talking about truthfulness, which is it?" asked Kim. "You can't come before the committee, say your job is one the line, make these statements and then now, in a confidential letter to the Board of Regents, make other claims."
"If you watch her testimony, you will see that there are a number of statements made that twist the truth," Kim said.
Abercrombie's spokeswoman denied that he pressured Greenwood in the Donovan discussions. Instead, she said the governor offered her options after Greenwood asked for his advice.
Her attorney claimed Greenwood has suffered from emotional distress and physical sickness including stomach problems, sleeplessness and high blood pressure because of the situation.
But Bickerton, the attorney, said the $2 million figure might be hard to justify.
"Looking at what's actually happened so far, it's a little difficult to say why her emotional losses would rise to that level. Because frankly, I think when we search for university presidents, we search for people who have some toughness," Bickerton said.
"She's gotta be able to take a little heat and be tough about it," he said, even if she's subjected to political pressure that's inappropriate.
On the other hand, Bickerton said losses can add up to more than just salary.
"There are losses other than a cash loss when you lose a job, especially when it's a job you've worked your whole life for, you're really enjoying and it provides a lot of satisfaction," he said.
Bickerton said the demand letter was an attempt to give Greenwood leverage.
"The letter makes it clear that this isn't just going to be about this employee and this employer, it's going to bring in the governor and the Senate president and the chief of staff," Bickerton said. "Going into a negotiation, you want to show people the size of your armaments and make sure that they know that you're not powerless in the negotiation so that there is a better give and take."
Bickerton is representing former Gov. Ben Cayetano in his defamation lawsuit against Pacific Resource Partnership for millions of dollars worth of negative commercials the group funded during the Honolulu mayor's race. Bickerton said in Greenwood's case, defamation is tough to prove because she's not only a public figure but is also a public official.
"But they have a higher burden in a libel case. They've got to show whoever said something about them didn't have an honest belief in what they were saying," he said.
Greenwood's lawyer also said she may have a claim under Hawaii's whistleblower laws.
"The thing you have to be reporting is a violation of law. So the question is what violation of law would Ms.Greenwood be reporting to say 'Hey, I'm a whistleblower,'" Bickerton said.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who wrote a letter of support for Greenwood last week, reacted to the release of her legal demand letter Wednesday.
"It is most unfortunate that this demand letter, written when emotions were running high, would be leaked to the press a week after it was withdrawn, just as practical discussions were beginning relating to the future of the University of Hawaii," said Peter Boylan, Inouye's spokesman, in a statement. "The release of this withdrawn letter to the media was obviously meant to once again ignite emotions and tempers."
In a Nov. 6 letter to the Board of Regents, Inouye said Greenwood is well regarded nationally in academia and the research sectors.
"I would urge you to balance the many exciting initiatives and opportunities that are moving forward for the benefit of our Hawaii students under President Greenwood's leadership," Inouye wrote.
"Senator Inouye stands by his previous statements in support of President M.R.C. Greenwood," Boylan said Wednesday.