Ex-Baseball Coach Seeks to Reopen Lawsuits

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


A former baseball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is asking both a Winnebago County judge and a federal judge to reopen lawsuits they dismissed against four university administrators in light of what he calls new evidence against the former chancellor and former chief business officer.

The former coach, Tom Lechnir, said new evidence that surfaced last week could validate his legal claim that he lost his job because he blew the whistle on former Chancellor Richard Wells for allegedly diverting private gifts earmarked for a new baseball stadium to another building project - the Oshkosh Sports Complex - without informing the donors. His attorneys are seeking to reopen lawsuits in Winnebago County Circuit Court in Oshkosh and U.S. District Court in Green Bay.

The state Department of Justice, which successfully defended Wells and former chief business officer Thomas Sonnleitner in Lechnir's lawsuits, is now suing Wells and Sonnleitner on behalf of the UW System, presenting a conflict for handling both. The Department of Justice has referred Lechnir's cases against Wells and Sonnleitner to Gov. Scott Walker's office, requesting outside counsel be appointed to represent them, a Department of Justice spokesman said Wednesday.

"We certainly understand that there is a conflict," spokesman Johnny Koremenos said.

Last week, the UW System filed its own civil lawsuit against Wells and Sonnleitner, alleging they illegally promised state money to back loans on several high-profile building projects - including the Oshkosh Sports Complex - if the university's private supporting foundation became overextended and couldn't make its debt payments. Further, the two are accused of making illegal money transfers from the university to the private foundation to help make those projects happen.

The motion Lechnir's attorneys filed to reopen his state case after UW System filed its lawsuit notes: "The Sports Complex - and its mismanaged finances - was the very same project for which Lechnir claimed he was being used as a scapegoat by Wells."

The motion in the federal case says Wells set up Lechnir to take the fall for problems financing the athletic complex. Among the new evidence it cites is the UW System's own statement against Wells and Sonnleitner released last week when it sued them: "This is both unacceptable and appalling," the UW statement said. "Dr. Wells and Mr. Sonnleitner were top personnel who were far afield from the rules and statutes that govern university operations."

The private, nonprofit UW-Oshkosh Foundation was created to provide support to the university, so funding should have flowed only from the foundation to the university. The state constitution and UW System policies do not allow a public entity to support a private organization, and campuses have strict rules that prevent university executives from being in decision-making roles on behalf of foundations.

Lechnir lost his job after Wells accused him of being responsible for and failing to repay debt on the new baseball stadium - debt Lechnir said was fabricated because money Lechnir raised for the baseball stadium was quietly diverted to the Oshkosh Sports Complex. Wells also cited low academic performance of student athletes and failure to meet his administrative responsibilities as a coach.

Lechnir's contract was not renewed in 2013, shortly after Wells leveled the accusations against him. Lechnir at that time also received the first substandard performance evaluation of his 31-year career, including six years as an assistant coach, from athletic director Darryl Sims.

The former coach led the Titans to the 1994 NCAA Division III championship and compiled a 728-292-1 record over 25 seasons. His teams appeared nine times in the Division III World Series and won 12 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles.

While the foundation raised money for construction of the Oshkosh Sports Complex, UW-Oshkosh owns it. Lechnir said he personally raised money from donors to pay off all the construction bills on the baseball stadium, though the donations would have been sent through the foundation.

The Oshkosh Sports Complex is used by multiple university sports teams. According to the UW System's lawsuit, Wells and Sonnleitner authorized five transfers of university funds to the foundation for the sports complex project totaling $806,000 between June 2011 and April 2013. None of those funds has been repaid, the lawsuit says.

Lechnir's attorneys, William McKinley and Jason Wied, filed the motions to reopen his lawsuit against Wells, Sonnleitner, Sims and former Vice Chancellor Petra Roter last Thursday - the day after the UW System filed suit against Wells and Sonnleitner.

The five projects Wells and Sonnleitner are accused of mishandling in the UW System lawsuit were led by the UW-Oshkosh Foundation. That lawsuit alleges more than $11 million in total was transferred from the university to the foundation in violation of state law.

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January 26, 2017


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