EIA Exclusive: Fired Louisiana Union Executive Tells Her Story.
Labor organizations are not always gardens of labor peace. A number of National Education Association state affiliates have had bitter contract disputes with their own staffs, sometimes leading to lockouts and strikes. When teacher union management and employees clash, each side draws upon its expertise in grievances, negotiations and, occasionally, hardball tactics.
The NEA-affiliated Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) has had its share of labor strife, including a staff strike in 1997. Its recent internal difficulties, reported in detail by EIA over the past two weeks, extend beyond staff problems. But one incident seems to encapsulate the bitter feelings that have been percolating at all levels of the organization. Last February 24, LAE Associate Executive Director Guessippina Bonner was suspended by Executive Director Gene Neely, and subsequently fired by vote of the LAE board of directors in executive session the next month.
Now, for the first time, Dr. Bonner tells us what led to her dismissal, and why she believes members are being led astray about the situation at LAE headquarters.
EIA: Tell us about your background and how you came to work at LAE.
Dr. Bonner: I was first employed by the LAE in January 2000 as the Associate Executive Director and Director of Professional Development. In March 2001, I voluntarily accepted the position of Director of Legal Services. I was never paid for that position. I have a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Cultural Studies from the University of Houston, a J.D. from Southern New England School of Law and I have been admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. I have 20 years of NEA staff experience in Texas, Massachusetts and Louisiana.
EIA: The case against you that was ultimately presented to the LAE Board of Directors by Executive Director Gene Neely dealt exclusively with Legal Services matters. What were your day-to-day duties as Director of Legal Services?
Dr. Bonner: I would assign attorneys to handle member problems. I would personally meet with members to discuss issues, particularly when I knew no attorney would be assigned. I would meet with district administration concerning member issues and I would assist UniServ in drafting policy. This was in addition to a full load as the Director for Professional Development.
EIA: Who had the job before you?
Dr. Bonner: When I took the position of Legal Services director, Tom Tate had just been moved to become the Director for Governmental Relations. Tom had been the Director of Legal Services for 17 years.
EIA: Was the department in good shape when you took over?
Dr. Bonner: The LAE Legal Services department was a wreck when I took over.
EIA: How so?
Dr. Bonner: After 17 years, all the legal files were in two drawers of a four-drawer file cabinet. Prior to my taking the position, member problems were handled on a favoritism basis. Case files were missing or non-existent. There were cases that were not known until the bill showed up. I made Gene aware of this. I established a referral system from the UniServ. No case would be handled with a direct call from anyone unless the UniServ director for the area submitted it or was involved. This was new.
EIA: When you say “favoritism,” do you mean favoritism for certain attorneys?
Dr. Bonner: When I first assumed the position, there were 89 outside attorneys doing work for the Association, all white males. I went to Gene and pointed this out and informed him that I would be looking for minority attorneys as well. I did add three black attorneys and one white female.
EIA: And bills were being paid even though case files were missing?
Dr. Bonner: There were bills sent in 2002 for cases that the UniServ assured me were closed prior to my becoming Director in 2001. In August 2001, my secretary and I went to NEA in Washington, DC for training on the operation of the NEA computer documentation program. At that time we knew that our program had not been handled properly. Upon our return we met with Gene and told him of the lack of proper documentation, processing of member requests, verification of membership and a few other things. In November, there were four cases that were not in the system, nor were there folders in the file cabinet for these cases. These are examples of what I called “pop-up” cases: no records, but a bill would show up.
EIA: Neely’s charges against you insinuate there was overspending while you were in charge of Legal Services. Did he ever confront you about this?
Dr. Bonner: Yes, Gene was upset about the spending in Legal Services. However, he signed off on all bills. It wasn’t until September 2002 that he began to raise concerns. September seems to be a magic month.
EIA: What happened in September?
Dr. Bonner: In September 2002, I began entering [into the computer] all legal services information for NEA myself. Once I started entering the bills, I found that I was able to keep track of the over 300 cases better and I just kept doing it. When I began entering the bills for NEA and checking financial statements, people became REALLY nervous.
EIA: Why were you checking financial statements?
Dr. Bonner: Actually, I was beginning to prepare for this year’s audit from NEA. I had requested files from attorneys dating back five years. One firm had shipped me five legal-size boxes. When I left, all those boxes were thrown in the trash. I was just beginning to really dig, maybe too much. I had gone to the Finance department and requested financial information concerning some attorneys the week before I was terminated.
EIA: What happened on February 24, 2003?
Dr. Bonner: I went to work as usual. There was a Post-It note on my office door stating that over the weekend Gene had gone into my office and removed the legal files and that Tom Tate was reviewing them. When I went to ask what this was about, [Neely] requested my resignation. I asked what I had done, and he said he did not have to tell me. I told him that I would not resign. He said he would be taking a recommendation for my dismissal to the LAE Board of Directors at their next meeting and that I was suspended with pay until that time.
EIA: He must have given you some indication of what the problem was.
Dr. Bonner: I requested something in writing from him regarding directives and actions, but he refused to provide such. His only further explanatory statement was that he planned to take the Association in a different direction and I did not fit.
EIA: What did he tell the staff?
Dr. Bonner: He sent a memo immediately putting Tom Tate back in charge of Legal Services and notified the staff that he would review all open cases to decide if they would remain open.
EIA: I assume the board asked for an explanation.
Dr. Bonner: The board meeting was on March 21. A board member requested that I be given an opportunity to present a defense. At that time, I did not know why I was being recommended for termination, therefore, on advice from my attorney, I did not attend. On the evening of March 19, I received a letter from Gene Neely by FedEx that said I would be given 15 minutes to defend myself. Also in that letter were four vague charges. I had less than 24 hours to prepare a defense and no clear charges. My attorney and I both sent letters to the board in response.
EIA: Why did you hire a lawyer?
Dr. Bonner: I retained counsel because I believed, and they have concurred, that my civil rights have been violated based on race, gender and age. In the letter written by my attorneys to the LAE Board of Directors, they specifically stated that “the facts strongly indicated that illegal discrimination may have played a motivating part in Gene Neely’s decision to seek to have the Board terminate Dr. Bonner.”
EIA: Were you told what happened at the board meeting?
Dr. Bonner: In the executive session, Gene presented no documentation as evidence he had given me any directives. I have no signed evaluation, and no written performance expectations for either my Legal Services or Professional Development positions.
EIA: The board voted to terminate your employment based on the four charges you mentioned. I won’t quote the charges directly because they involve the legal cases of specific, named LAE members. Nevertheless, the charges all focus on overspending in Legal Services. Does Neely have a legitimate point?
Dr. Bonner: There were no funds spent in Legal Services that Gene Neely did not have knowledge of or his signature of approval on.
EIA: Other than your performance as Director of Legal Services, were there other issues that caused tension between you and Neely?
Dr. Bonner: I was accused, although not formally, of being behind the “No Confidence in the Executive Director and President” flier – even though the person who wrote the flier told both [LAE President] Carol Davis and Gene Neely that I had nothing to do with it. In one meeting in January, Gene informed me that more than half of the Board of Directors believed I was involved in this event and that they had been calling him concerning such.
EIA: In your view, what is going wrong at LAE headquarters?
Dr. Bonner: There is little opportunity for true membership input. No committee meetings are allowed to be held unless the president can be present to control what is said. LAE has so much potential, but the Baton Rouge office and leaders have no idea of what the rank-and-file members want or need.
EIA: Some LAE members and officials will dismiss your statements as those of a disgruntled ex-employee. How do you respond?
Dr. Bonner: I have proof of anything I have said. If I can make a difference for the staff that remains, fine with me. I am not seeking employment in any NEA affiliate. I am tired of the struggle, but not so tired that I will not sue.
(Note from 2017: Bonner moved to Lufkin, Texas, became president of the local NAACP chapter and won a seat on the city council.)