The Insider

Art Decoy: A handwritten note undercuts UH chancellor's wordy defense

One thing you can say for University of Houston Chancellor-President Art Smith: He's a prolific writer, and he can churn out page after page in his defense, even when the verbiage serves not to bolster his case but rather to drag the school into deeper legal water.

Last year Smith issued an unusual open letter defending his general counsel from sex discrimination charges and blaming a cabal of women employees and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the controversy. According to a labor lawyer not involved in the case, Smith's rambling missive simply widened the university's legal vulnerability in the continuing case.

Last week, after the Insider and the Houston Chronicle published allegations that Smith's administrators fired campus police chief George Hess because he reported a star football player's misdeeds to the district attorney, Smith struck again. In a five-page, single-spaced response addressed to the UH community, the chancellor served up a curious melange of admissions and denials, then capped it off with his customary shooting of the messenger.

Chancellor Art Smith is a man of many words.
Chancellor Art Smith is a man of many words.
Chris Bell gets chummy with his conservative peers.
Daniel Perlaky
Chris Bell gets chummy with his conservative peers.

"The news media are not serving their readers well by reporting unsubstantiated allegations by disgruntled employees or by linking totally unrelated events into a fictitious web of conspiracy, no matter how intriguing or dramatic they may sound."

Unfortunately for the chancellor, several of the key denials in his response are contradicted by impartial witnesses, leaving his own veracity very much in question.

In his missive, Smith denied that his decision to take the police out of the loop for reporting white-collar crime on campus had anything to do with Hess's investigation and subsequent report to the district attorney on football player Mike DeRouselle's forgery case. The athlete received a deferred sentence for check forgery in 1996, then forged a university book invoice and sold the texts for $700. Smith claimed he and his top administrators were unaware of DeRouselle's previous forgery when they decided to handle the matter in-house and away from law enforcement and the court system.

After denying that his administrators ever attempted to keep Hess from reporting DeRouselle to the district attorney, the chancellor flatly denied that Hess was ever terminated. "Has the university fired Chief Hess? No, not at any time," declared Smith. "Claims that he was somehow 'reinstated' are therefore groundless, since he was never terminated."

Hess recalls that a week after DeRouselle was sentenced to a jail term by Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, his immediate supervisor, Associate Chancellor John Martin, told him in a November meeting that he was being fired. The campus assistant chief, Frank Cempa, attended a later meeting between Hess and Martin, where the chief's termination was discussed. Cempa kept handwritten notes, which Hess's lawyer turned over to the Insider. They back up Hess's account and refute the chancellor's assertion that Hess was never fired.

According to Cempa's notes, written shortly after the November 9 meeting, "Chief Hess asked Martin when would he get his letter regarding his termination....Martin acted surprised that Hess had told me of his firing." Martin then told Hess he "should go out in a dignified manner due to his being a long-standing good performer."

Hess's attorney Glenn Diddel contends Chancellor Smith is flat wrong in saying Hess was not told he was fired.

"Obviously Mr. Smith, though he was quick to hop into his diatribe, didn't bother to talk to anybody," retorts the lawyer. "He didn't bother to talk to Hess, and he never talked to Cempa." The lawyer figures Smith was unaware that the Cempa notes existed when he issued his statement and didn't realize "you now have a highly credible witness who corroborates what Chief Hess has said, to the word."

Diddel finds it curious that while Smith, general counsel Dennis Duffy and Vice Chancellor Randy Harris have all spoken to the media, the man who actually fired Hess, Associate Chancellor Martin, has not been heard from. "Hess got Martinized," says Diddel with a chuckle, "but where's Martin? This is the guy, who, if there was any basis for Smith's defense, should be trotted out. Nobody's heard one word from him at all."

Diddel says that Smith is also wrong in claiming that top administrators, including current athletic director Chet Gladchuck, were unaware of DeRouselle's previous criminal record. According to the chancellor's letter, "it is vital to any understanding of the handling of DeRouselle's case in late 1998 and early 1999 that his previous conviction in 1996 for a felony was not then known by any of the University administrators principally involved."

Diddel says in fact Hess met with Gladchuck shortly after the director was hired in 1997 to brief him on law enforcement problems with the athletic department. One of the first topics was DeRouselle.

"Gladchuck was told by Hess that the football coach [at the time Kim Helton] was not very cooperative, and they had a problem with a player named DeRouselle, who had been convicted of problems before." Diddel says assistant chief Cempa and another UH officer were present when Gladchuck was briefed on DeRouselle's history, including his previous conviction.

If the matter ever goes to court as a wrongful termination suit, Diddel says, he expects to call Cempa and other officers to back up his client's account.

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