A former UW-Oshkosh baseball coach and his attorney detailed their allegations of whistle blower retaliation in a lengthy radio interview Friday. Tom Lechnir on Thursday filed a motion to re-open his lawsuit against UWO. The motion follows a lawsuit filed last week by the UW System against retired UWO Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice-Chancellor of Administrative Services and Chief Business Officer Thomas Sonnleitner. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported the suit alleges that the two illegally promised state money to back loans on several high-profile building projects if the university’s supporting foundation became overextended and couldn’t make its debt payments. Further, the suit alleges that Wells and Sonnleitner made illegal transfers of money from the university to the foundation to help make those projects happen, the suit says.
Lechnir and his attorney, Will McKinley, in great detail, described what happened to Lechnir when he raised questions in 2013 about finances at UWO. McKinley said in the radio interview that the suit filed against Wells and Sonnleitner shows that Lechnir’s allegations in 2013 were not the product of some wild conspiracy theory. McKinley explained how a baseball coach with a record of 722-292-1 over 25 season came to not have his contract renewed:
“Tom was involved in some fundraising projects for the construction of a baseball stadium that was part of the new sports complex, which, coincidentally, is one of the projects that is subject to the new lawsuit against Richard Wells and Tom Sonleitner. Soon…there were concerns being raised to coach Leichner how money was missing or was coming up short, and, you know, Tom and his team were doing a really good job of fundraising. They were basically doing this on their own, trying to get this baseball stadium built. And Wells kept saying: “you’re short, you’re short, you’re short.”
McKinley said Leichner insisted at the time that the money he helped raise paid for the project and he couldn’t understand why Wells was accusing him of a shortfall. McKinley says the next thing Leichner knows, his coaching contract isn’t being renewed.
“There were multiple what we allege were trumped up charges…one of them was the fact that he failed to satisfy the financial conditions that were imposed upon him for fundraising…Tom was put through what I would call…a kangaroo court. Essentially, he had made public statements…that there was something fishy going on with the books. He was wanting to get his hands on the documents, he was wanting to get his hands on the financial reports, because it just didn’t add up in his assessment.”
McKinley says “kangaroo court” is a reference to an administrative process where Leichner wasn’t allowed to do discovery, or allowed to cross-examine witnesses. And McKinley says this process was overseen by Richard Wells, the very person, McKinley points out, now accused of financial improprieties by the UW System Board of Regents. McKinley says it was ultimately Wells who determined UWO was justified in not renewing Leichner’s contract.
Leichner challenged Well’s decision in a lawsuit filed in Winnebago County Circuit Court. But McKinley says existing laws are set up to give deference to whoever the administrative decision-maker is. As a result, the court determined there was insufficient evidence presented by Leichner to make his case. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling.
Leichner then filed a federal lawsuit, which McKinley says was an effort to get Leichner compensation from those who cost him his job and those who retaliated against Leichner for using his First Amendment Rights. But McKinley said it was a similar situation to the state suit, where the court determined there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate Leichner’s allegations. McKinley says the lawsuit filed last week by the UW system against the former administrators “changes everything:”
“Because everything he (Leichner) was alleging, this ‘cockamamie’ conspiracy theory, all of the sudden we have the UW system making similar allegations against the very people he was making them against multiple years ago. As a result, we have filed motions to reopen those cases, on the basis that wasn’t showing that he didn’t get a full and fair opportunity be heard; now we have a situation where the UW system themselves, conceding there were financial improprieties… He (Leichner) should at least have the opportunity now to redeem himself.”
Leichner was asked during the radio interview what he would like to see happen:
“I want the truth…the facts have been in disarray at Oshkosh for a long, long, time and they are only beginning to come out now…not a whole lot of people believed me…but perhaps now they’re going to believe the State of Wisconsin, the Department of Justice and UWO, because they’re making the same exact accusations that I made.”
Leichner says he has had virtually no professional career since. He alleges that UWO essentially blackballed him, making it impossible to find a coaching job. Leichner says he wants his good name back, but also feels some compensation is order.
As the Journal-Sentinel reported, the timing of the allegations is downright awkward for the UW System:
The UW System hopes to receive $42.5 million in new funding from the state in the 2017-’19 budget, and doesn’t need a crisis of confidence in its stewardship of state taxpayer dollars.
And the paper points out that until last week, Wells was basking in the glow of a sterling legacy at Oshkosh:
In his 14 years of leadership, ambitious real estate developments literally reshaped the landscape in and around the Fox Valley campus. Degrees conferred jumped 30%, with dramatic growth in the number of majors. Enrollment rose 19%, with students of color more than tripling.
Now that legacy is drowning in scandal.
For more than three years it was Tom Leichner who felt as though he was drowning. He’s hoping the UW System’s allegations against Wells and Sonnleitner will prove to be a long-awaited lifeline.
You can hear the interview with McKinley and Leichner at the links below: