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Judge hit with flurry of motions over Cal U suit

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Attorneys for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and system officials asked a federal judge on Tuesday to dismiss an amended lawsuit filed by former California University president Angelo Armenti Jr., arguing that the agency is immune from lawsuits and that Armenti is unable to prove any of his allegations.

In a separate filing, another defendant, professor Michael Slavin, said Armenti cannot sustain a defamation allegation against him because Armenti is a public figure and is unable to prove actual malice, a standard required of public officials and public figures.

Meanwhile, an attorney for Armenti responded that his client's suit should not be dismissed, arguing that the 72-year-old's dismissal was part of a “wanton power-grab” by officials who wanted rid of him.

Attorneys for the parties peppered a federal judge in Harrisburg with a flurry of dismissal motions arguing why Armenti's suit against the system, former education secretary Ron Tomalis, former system chancellor John Cavanaugh and board of governors members Guido Picchini, Ronald Henry and Marie Conley should be dismissed; and that his allegation that officials were out to get him “slips into the realm of tinfoil-hatted conspiracy.”

Tomalis now is an education adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett. Cavanaugh is the president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Armenti was president of Cal U from 1992 until his dismissal in May 2012. In October, he filed suit alleging civil rights violation, defamation and retaliation because he spoke out against the financial and management policies of then-Chancellor Cavanaugh.

The dismissal motions were in response to an amended complaint Armenti filed in April.

Defense attorneys noted that Armenti was aware that his contract with PASSHE subjected him to dismissal without reason because he served “at the board's pleasure.” They added that Armenti was not entitled to “perpetual employment” and pointed out that the defendants never accused Armenti of any wrongdoing as he claims.

Armenti's final months as president were tumultuous, with faculty dissension and questions about spending practices that led to a financial review by the state system.

Auditors questioned $59 million in spending for a convocation center, $6 million of which was cost overruns. They questioned why student rent money was paid to a university-affiliated nonprofit organization, the Student Association Inc., which then funneled money to a university-related foundation rather than directly to the school.

Armenti claims that an unidentified member of the system's board of governors told a state legislator that Armenti was under investigation by the FBI. State attorneys denied the allegation.

He claims the financial report was “selectively leaked” to the news media and faculty union officials in order to establish a reason to fire him. He alleges that his firing was triggered after he publicly questioned Cavanaugh's policies and after he filed a formal complaint against Cavanaugh with the board of governors.

Armenti claims that Slavin, who chairs the theater department and is president of local chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania College and University Faculties, conspired with the system to oust him. As evidence, he charged Slavin knew Armenti would be dismissed a month in advance because he had briefed colleagues on April 4, 2012.

Slavin's attorneys called the allegation “groundless.”

“While Armenti may take personal offense with his faculty for believing he is 'mistrusting and brutal' the unfortunate reality was that opinion was held by the Cal U faculty,” Slavin's attorneys wrote.

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

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