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Former California University president Armenti sues Pennsylvania over ouster

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 7:38 p.m.
Former California University of Pennsylvania President Angelo Armenti Jr. was fired in May.  
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Former California University of Pennsylvania President Angelo Armenti Jr. was fired in May. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

The former president of California University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Harrisburg alleging state officials conspired to deprive him of his civil rights and “to create a public basis for his termination” by comparing his financial practices and spending as president to money laundering, according to the suit.

Named as defendants in the suit filed by Angelo Armenti Jr. are the State System of Higher Education, state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, state system Chancellor John Cavanaugh, chairman of the state system's board of governors Guido Pichini and Michael Slavin.

Slavin is a theater professor at the university and president of the local chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, which represents professors.

Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the state system, had no comment. Slavin said he was not aware he was named in the lawsuit and had not seen a copy of it Wednesday. His steadfast vocal opposition to Armenti's policies made him a target, Slavin said.

“I would have to read further because I don't know anything about it. My basic reaction is, although I haven't read what the complaint is, it doesn't surprise me that I'm named,” Slavin said. “Anybody can sue anybody for anything. I did him no harm.”

Armenti, 72, accused the system of violating his First Amendment rights to free speech, breach of contract, civil conspiracy and defamation, according to the suit. Slavin is accused of defamation and interfering with Armenti's contractual relationship with the system.

Armenti, who was fired May 16 after two decades at the helm of the Washington County school, alleges his firing was because he filed a whistleblower complaint against Cavanaugh for interfering with Armenti's management of the university. Armenti claimed that Cavanaugh, his deputies conspired against him.

Attorney Steve Toprani, who represents Armenti, said the suit is a “strong step forward in vindicating President Armenti's stellar reputation.

“This lawsuit is more than the assertion of Dr. Armenti's rights; this suit is a direct challenge to (the state system) for the manner in which they respond to those who question their political decisions and practices,” Toprani said.

Armenti said he was summoned to Harrisburg in May and given an ultimatum, retire or be fired from the $227,000-a-year post, according to the suit. Armenti said he had a spotless record during his tenure and had improved student performance, increased enrollment and modernized the campus.

Armenti built a $59 million Convocation Center that had $6.2 million in cost overruns that hiked the school's annual debt payments to $2.5 million. In addition, Armenti had promised the state he would raise $12 million in private donations to help fund construction but only raised $4,000, according to the audit.

Armenti accused the system of using the audit as a pretext to fire him. He noted the audit was released a day after he was fired, to “further defame (his) reputation.” He said the audit was in retaliation for his comments about the state's funding cuts for universities and for his complaint against Cavanaugh.

“In doing so, Armenti was sharply critical of PASSHE's policy decisions which undermined PASSHE's statutory mission and placed undue financial pressures on the universities and their students,” reads the suit.

“Armenti spoke in opposition to PASSHE tuition-policy decisions that he felt saddled students of limited means with increasing student loan debt.”

The suit accuses Slavin of sending a 17-page “manifesto” from the faculty union to the board of governors, Cavanaugh and the university's board of trustees urging Armenti's firing. He said Slavin had advance word of Armenti's dismissal because he informed a faculty meeting that Armenti's firing was imminent.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292.

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