Jenni Rebecca Stephenson Sues Fresh Arts, Alleges A Firing "Scheme" [UPDATED]
Jenni Rebecca Stephenson was fired by the Fresh Arts board of directors based on false pretensions, according to just-filed court documents.
Update 6:46 p.m. February 17, 2016: See statement from a representative of Fresh Arts below.
Update 1:56 p.m. February 19, 2016: Fresh Arts announces it has hired a new director. See below.
After months of conjecture, Jenni Rebecca Stephenson was unfairly ousted as the executive director of Fresh Arts. At least that’s what court documents, filed at the tail end of Monday with the Harris County District Court, 129th Judicial District, allege.
Stephenson, who’s suing her old place of employment as well as Fresh Arts’ board president Harry McMahan, claims that McMahan and his lawyer Scott McLaughin “devised a scheme” to get Stephenson the heck out of Fresh Arts.
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“Realizing that the Fresh Arts board recognized Jenni as a hard working effective advocate for the organization, McMahan [and] McLaughin, together with an unidentified Frost Bank auditor, supposedly conducted an ‘audit’ of Fresh Arts’ finances,” reads the court documents. “After finding nothing, McMahan looked at the credit card transactions that Fresh Arts charged to Jenni’s American Express account.
“Even though McMahan, McLaughin, and the Frost Bank ‘auditor’ knew that it was Jenni’s American Express, McMahan and McLaughin reported to the corporate board of Fresh Arts that Jenni ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ was stealing funds. The Fresh Arts Board, in reliance upon the false representations by McMahan and McLaughin, terminated Jenni as executive director.”
As previously reported, Stephenson – who’s seeking damages for defamation, libel and slander, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract – lost her longtime gig hours after appearing on the radio to discuss Houston’s goofy public financing mechanisms for the arts. At the time of her departure, Fresh Arts maintained that Stephenson had left the organization on her own will.
The lawsuit also claims that McMahan, who’s a vice president at Frost Bank (which is also a co-defendant in the suit), created a conflict of interest when he moved Fresh Arts’ funds from Amegy Bank to Frost Bank.
Stephenson declined comment when reached by cell phone. Stephenson’s Sugar Land-based attorney James D. Pierce didn’t get back to the Houston Press. McMahan ignored the Press’s e-mail.
The timing of the suit, which can be read below, is something else — Fresh Arts’ annual fundraising gala is slated to take place Friday night.
Fresh Arts believes in the artists of Houston, and that is why we are here. From its inception, Fresh Arts has remained steadfast in our mission to provide resources and services to advance independent artists’ livelihoods with seminars and workshops, exhibitions, fundraisers and art markets. Many employers face groundless claims brought by former employees. Fresh Arts is not immune. Yesterday, our own former Executive Director, Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, sued Fresh Arts, one of our board members—and even our bank. It is disheartening that Ms. Stephenson would make such a baseless attack on an organization that she professes to love. Fresh Arts will be filing appropriate papers to set the record straight. Thankfully, our dedicated volunteers and staff have refused to let this lawsuit undermine the important work we provide, and they have not allowed Ms. Stephenson’s departure to distract them from their commitment to the artists that we serve. The future of Fresh Arts resides in the hearts, minds, and creative spirit of Houston artists, and it is with great pride that we continue to help make their dreams a reality.
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Marci Dallas will become executive director of Fresh Arts in March of 2016. “Ms. Dallas has a strong background in the arts, leadership, fundraising, and financial management, and will serve both Fresh Arts and the local art community with great integrity, commitment, and competence,” said Jared LeBlanc, Fresh Arts board member.
Artist Advisory and Search Committee member, Jeff Forster, commented "I was pleased to find the board shared my sentiment in finding an Executive Director who would continue to uphold and be a spokesperson for the Fresh Arts mission. I am confident that Marci will actively engage the art community in invaluable ways and am excited to see the projects that transpire upon her arrival, including an opportunity to build her Artist Advisory Committee."
Dallas, who has previously held curatorial and development roles in organizations such as The Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Holocaust Museum Houston, remarked: “I have the utmost respect for the work of Fresh Arts, and I appreciate this exciting opportunity to serve the art community in Houston. The board, staff and I look forward to addressing our members’ needs through ongoing dialogue and close partnership.”
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