Originally created 04/11/98

VP gets accused by staff



ATHENS, Ga. -- For four years, Theresa Shirley, secretary to the University of Georgia legal affairs vice president, fielded calls from distraught plaintiffs and greeted whistle blowers seeking justice at the state's largest university.

In January, she decided to leave her work cubicle and become a whistle blower herself.

She visited university President Michael Adams privately and told him her boss, university Vice President Bryndis Roberts, used support staff routinely for errands and harassed her daily with criticism, profanity, or racially and sexually charged language.

When a presidential aide confronted Ms. Roberts with the informal complaints two weeks later, she resigned.

But Ms. Roberts will remain on the state payroll after her contract expires June 30. As a paid legal consultant, Ms. Roberts, 41, will draw her $134,300 annual salary through February.

"Bryndis was destroying my life, honestly, and nobody understood it," Ms. Shirley said in an interview with the Athens Daily News. "My husband didn't understand it. People I talked to didn't understand it, because if you were not in that situation, you don't know how bad it was.

"That's what I told Dr. Adams," she said. "He listened to me for about 30 minutes."

Other staff members support Ms. Shirley's view of the office's atmosphere, and Ms. Roberts' behavior.

"It's just unfortunate that it went on," said S. Paulette Bernthal, a part-time secretary in the office. "We all knew it was going on. I don't think the president's office realized the extent that this has affected us."

Stephanie Watson, a legal affairs employee since 1995, said she often witnessed Ms. Roberts direct disparaging remarks at Ms. Shirley and others.

"I wish it could have been stopped sooner," Ms. Watson said.

In her meeting with Dr. Adams, Ms. Shirley, 43, made numerous claims against Ms. Roberts, a former assistant attorney general and the university's chief legal officer for 10 years.

Her accounts were corroborated by co-workers and by internal office work lists that Ms. Roberts required her staffers to keep, detailing their daily activities:

-- Ms. Shirley said Ms. Roberts called her a "chubby-cheeked white child" around the office, and called legal affairs staff members -- white and black -- disparaging names.

Others said Ms. Roberts' private speech was normally sprinkled with racial references and crude, demeaning language. Ms. Roberts denied in an interview last week ever using racial epithets.

-- The vice president made staff uneasy by asking Ms. Shirley to remark on her legs and breasts and by making comments about employees' bodies.

On one occasion, Ms. Shirley said, Ms. Roberts walked around scantily clad in an after-hours work session at Ms. Roberts' home, working with Ms. Shirley and Ms. Bernthal on Savannah State University's legal defense during an athletics point-fixing scandal.

Ms. Bernthal confirmed the account.

"Bryndis would walk around in her hot pink panties and her T-shirt with no bra. That's what she had on the whole time I was out there," Ms. Shirley said. "Do you think I felt uncomfortable? Her blinds in her house were closed; her house was dark. You bet I felt uncomfortable."

In a two-paragraph statement sent to the Athens Daily News on Thursday, Ms. Roberts responded to the claim in her statement:

"Ms. Shirley's reference to my mode of dress while working at home is surprising," she wrote.

"Because I was working non-stop, I often wore my pajamas or a bathrobe. By failing to give the context of her visit to my home, Ms. Shirley attempts to suggest some sexual conduct on my part, which is ludicrous."

In her Thursday statement, sent from the law office of Athens lawyer David Sweat, Ms. Roberts said "personal" discussions in the office sometimes arose from "cases that dealt with issues of human behavior, including human sexuality and racial relations."

"Discussions of appearance and personal relationships were an acceptable part of the dialogue," she wrote in the statement. "However, nothing that was ever said was intended in any way to insult, offend or demean anyone, and no one ever indicated to me that he or she felt offended."

-- Ms. Roberts cursed at staff, criticized their work daily and often called Ms. Shirley "stupid," Ms. Shirley said.

-- The legal affairs chief often skipped work and required Ms. Shirley to place wake-up calls to her throughout some mornings, especially when she had a meeting with former university President Charles Knapp.

Tom Landrum, the presidential aide who checked out Ms. Shirley's complaints, has defended Ms. Roberts' consulting deal as appropriate, but he said Wednesday the allegations against Ms. Roberts struck him as serious.

University policy prohibits discourteous and offensive behavior, and the use of staff and equipment for unofficial, private work.

Dr. Adams has declined comment.

Athens Daily News and Banner-Herald reported Sunday that legal affairs workers also alleged they were often called upon to run personal errands for Ms. Roberts on state time.

Among other private errands, they researched estimates on Ms. Roberts' home improvements; waited more than two hours at her home for a tree-service worker and ferried her daughters to extracurricular appointments, according to legal-affairs work lists dating to 1995.

The newspaper obtained the lists last week under an open-records request.

Ms. Watson, who still works in legal affairs part time, recalls Ms. Roberts calling her out of a minority-programs meeting across campus and asking her to return to legal affairs to curl Ms. Roberts' hair.

That task did not appear on Ms. Watson's work lists, one of five sets obtained by the newspaper.

"I thought something was wrong," Ms. Watson said. "I just couldn't believe she would call me out of a meeting for something like that."