Acquitted Central State President Blasts Ohio Officials for Legal Tangle

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XENIA, OHIO

Triumphant following his complete vindication by a jury, Dr. Arthur E. Thomas lashed out late last month at Ohio officials who had tried to force him to repay a portion of a $325,000 severance agreement he received when he resigned as president of Central State University in 1995.

Thomas claims the civil lawsuit filed by state officials seeking repayment of more than $125,000 was a racially motivated attempt to find a scapegoat after several investigations found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing at Central State during the mid- 1990s.

An all-White, eight-member jury deliberated for four hours over two days before reaching its verdict in favor of Thomas. The Ohio Attorney General's office, representing Central State, had sued Thomas in Greene County Common Pleas Court after state auditors concluded a portion of Thomas' severance pay was improper. Auditors also accused Thomas of not properly documenting travel and telephone costs and of improperly removing certain artwork from the president's residence that belonged to the university. Jurors rejected all of the state's claims.

"Central State University was used as a vehicle so that the state could try to get me," Thomas says. He adds that Ohio is "a state that punishes you when you call it a racist," and goes on to say the state "is more racist today than Mississippi was in the 1940s."

Thomas's attorney, Larry James of Columbus, says the case was pursued by a state attorney general's office, former Gov. George Voinovich and other state officials "who hated Dr. Thomas so much they couldn't let it go."

But Jonathan Hollingsworth, a Dayton attorney hired by the Ohio Attorney General's office to handle the Thomas case and similar Central State matters, says neither race nor personal grudges had anything to do with the lawsuit or the trial.

"This is a case of trying to recover state money that was improperly expended. It is not about Dr. Thomas' personality, and it is certainly not about Dr. Thomas being used as a scapegoat," Hollingsworth says. "The only person who appears to believe that race was an issue is Dr. Thomas."

Thomas, James and Hollingsworth are African Americans.

Karen Jackson, a member of the all-White jury, says race was not a factor in deliberations. Jackson, a school bus driver, says jurors concluded state attorneys didn't prove their case.

"There's no question about it -- he did nothing wrong," Jackson says of Thomas. "Nobody (on the jury) questioned his character."

Six of the eight jurors -- the minimum needed to reach a verdict in a civil trial in common pleas court in Ohio -- concluded that Central State's board of trustees did have the authority to award $125,000 in accumulated vacation and sick leave to the departing president as part of the severance package Thomas and the board negotiated in 1995. Jackson says that issue prompted the most discussion among jurors, whom she said were split four-to-four on the issue when deliberations broke for the day.

Jackson says jurors had an easier time concluding Thomas should not have to repay the university for travel and telephone reimbursements that state auditors claimed were not properly documented and for a tapestry that auditors suggested Thomas improperly took with him when he departed the university's president's home. Thomas testified that he did not have the tapestry and could not recall what it looked like.

The state's star witness was Daniel Schultz, the second-in-command in the Ohio Auditor's Office. He testified that Thomas should have to repay $841 in expenses incurred in 1994 when Thomas was invited by the National Association for Equal Opportunity to testify in Oxford, Miss. …