Attorneys Challenge AU Trustees' Leadership

By Valerie Strauss and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 8, 2005

Attorneys for suspended American University President Benjamin Ladner yesterday challenged the way a months-long investigation into Ladner's personal and travel expenses has been conducted and questioned "the continued fitness" of the leadership of the board of trustees that started the probe.

The challenge came in two letters sent to attorneys hired by the board of trustees' executive committee to help with the investigation.

The letters also dispute conclusions about Ladner made in a report given Thursday to board members, who are to meet Monday to discuss Ladner's future at the university. That report concludes that Ladner's 1997 employment contract, with its generous severance package and other perks, would not hold up in court, that Ladner should repay the university more than $115,000 and that he should have reported more than $350,000 in additional taxable income over three years.

The investigation was launched last spring after an anonymous letter writer questioned spending by Ladner and his wife, Nancy. The Justice Department is also investigating.

It was the first time that Ladner's attorneys challenged the board's leadership, although some trustees who support Ladner have privately made similar statements. The letters help illustrate the battle lines among the board's 24 voting members.

Two sources involved in the investigation who asked not to be identified because of the situation's sensitivity said the letters presage an attempt by some members to remove the chairman of the board, Leslie E. Bains, the other five members of the executive committee who started the investigation and at least one other member who opposes Ladner. Bains did not return a call for comment.

Ladner did not return a phone call yesterday seeking a response to the letters. In an online chat on yesterday, in which he selected questions, he said that he believes media coverage has been unfair and that when the facts are known there will be a "positive outcome" for him and AU.

Ladner's attorneys, David W. Ogden and Randolph M. Goodman, sent the letters to attorney James Joseph, who was hired by the board last year and has led the spending probe, and to Stephen M. Ryan, who helped with it. Neither Joseph nor Ryan, who work for different law firms, nor Ladner's attorneys, who work for the same firm, returned phone calls.

One of the letters complains about media coverage of the investigation and accuses anti-Ladner forces of engaging in leaks damaging AU and the president. The other letter disputes the report that Joseph sent Thursday to board members.

The conclusion that the contract would not stand up to a legal challenge was made separately by Ryan and Joseph.

Several current and former board members said they never saw the 1997 contract.

Former trustee William I. Jacobs "mentioned it at a board meeting, but I do not ever remember hearing specifics about the contract" or it being ratified, said Abbey Joel Butler, a trustee from 1986 to 2004. "I never, ever read the contract -- that was a mistake that all the board made. . . . We forgot about the contract, and it never came up again."

Ogden and Goodman say in the letters that the conclusion was based on a "gross misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the circumstances surrounding the contract."

One of the Ogden and Goodman letters includes a statement by Jacobs, who said he reported to the full board about Ladner's new contract, discussing its components and offering to provide more details to anyone who requested them.

The 1997 agreement was not presented to or approved by the board, according to an analysis by Joseph's firm, which included a review of meeting minutes.

Jacobs said in a recent interview that board minutes were sometimes sloppily kept.

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