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Let The Sunshine In

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Agenda Publications
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The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of AGENDA associate editor Eric Jackson in hls prolonged brawl with Eastem Michigan University administrators and political hangers-on who hijacked EMU's endowment and tried to hide their use of millions of dollars of public assets from public view. Though Jackson is now living in Panama, the flght is likely to continue before the Michigan Supreme Court and in related lawsuits likely to be brought by other parties. It started in 1992 when EMU's regents transferred an $8 million endownient fund to the Eastern Michigan University Foundation (EMUF), a Michigan non-profitcorporation set up by then-EMU vice president Roy Wilbanks at the regents' direction. At the time the university also announced plans, since carried out, to transfer such assets as its golf course and revenues from football scoreboard ads to the foundation. Though not emphasized in its press releases, the EMUF projected six-figure salaries for its top administrators, one of whom was to be Wilbanks. Wilbanks, a former high school wrestling coach with an EMU master's degree in social foundations had become wealthy and powerful by using his political connections. He became EMU's executive vice president, the man who effectively ran the university, through his ties to former Democratie speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, Gary Owen. Owen and Wilbanks had been roommates and colleagues on the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees, and Wilbanks played a key role in Owen's campaigns. Jackson, fearing a big-time pillage of the fund used to support EMU scholarships and faculty research grants, attempted to derail the gravy train by requesting certain financial figures and meeting minutes from the EMUF. The foundation denied the requests, made pursuant to Michigan's Open Meetingsand Freedom of Information Acts, arguing that as a private institution, it isn't subject to those laws. Jackson sued in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, where the case was assigned to Judge Kurtis T. Wilder. (Wilder's campaign manager was none other than Wilbank's wife, Cynthia Hudgins.) After delaying a ruling for more than one year, Wilder dismissed Jackson's lawsuit in 1993. Just before leaving for Panama, as one of his last acts as an active attorney (he's now a full-time journalist), Jackson appealed Wilder's ruling. The United Auto Workers, which represents EMU's clerical and technical staff, and The Ann Arbor News filed amicus briefs supporting Jackson's position. Prominent Trotskyist activist and Detroit Attorney George B. Washington represented the union before the Appeals Court. While the case was languishing on the appeals docket, Wilbanks resigned his position with EMU in favor of a post with the EMUF. The foundation hired Carey Jernigan, wife of former GOP Ann Arbor mayor Gerald Jernigan, as its highly-paid chief executive. Just how highly paid, of course, was an EMUF "trade secret." OnJanuary22, 1996, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Jackson's favor on both the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings counts. The latter ruling may have especially far-reaching implications, as all decisions made violation of the Open Meetings Act are legal nullities. This sets the stage foranother suitby an EMU student or employee who feels aggrieved, who coukl force Wilbanks and other EMUF directors and administrators to repay every cent that they have received from the foundation.


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