UCF of­fi­cial re­signs amid al­le­ga­tions about gifts

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By An­nie Martin Staff Writer

A high-level Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida ad­min­is­tra­tor re­signed af­ter an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion found he so­licited and ac­cepted gifts from ven­dors — in­clud­ing cloth­ing, meals and tick­ets to an Or­lando City Soc­cer Club match — and told his em­ploy­ees to do the same.

It wasn’t the first time As­so­ciate Vice Pres­i­dent of Univer­sity Re­la­tions Curt Sawyer, who was paid $195,988 an­nu­ally, had vi­o­lated the state ethics code for pub­lic em­ploy­ees, UCF doc­u­ments show. Sawyer’s su­per­vi­sor, Chief Fi­nan­cial Of­fi­cer Bill Merck, re­buked him in 2014 for sim­i­lar abuses, de­scrib­ing the ac­cu­sa­tions against him as “very trou­bling” and re­quir­ing him to at­tend train­ing in eth­i­cal lead­er­ship.

Though Sawyer was told in 2014 he couldn’t take gifts

from cur­rent or prospec­tive ven­dors, he con­tin­ued to do so, the univer­sity’s ethics of­fice found. He re­signed March 19, less than a week af­ter Merck re­ceived a re­port from Rhonda Bishop, the univer­sity’s chief com­pli­ance and ethics of­fi­cer, that said Sawyer had an “on­go­ing un­will­ing­ness to com­ply” with the state ethics code, the Sen­tinel learned re­cently. He is not fac­ing crim­i­nal charges.

In an email to the Or­lando Sen­tinel, Sawyer, who worked for UCF since 2007, said the univer­sity told him he could re­sign or fight the charges in a hear­ing. Af­ter read­ing the in­ves­tiga­tive re­port, Sawyer said he de­cided the rift be­tween him and his su­per­vi­sor was ir­repara­ble.

“In­tegrity and a good name are ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­por­tant to me, far more than a job, and the re­port makes me out to be a cal­lous rule-breaker,” he wrote. “That is not the case.”

Much of the univer­sity’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion cen­tered around a 2016 con­fer­ence for state univer­sity ad­min­is­ters that Sawyer or­ga­nized and at­tended. He and his staff so­licited meals and en­ter­tain­ment for con­fer­ence at­ten­dees from ven­dors, in­clud­ing Ara­mark, Coca-Cola and Sta­ples, which were ne­go­ti­at­ing con­tracts with the univer­sity at the time — a process that Sawyer was over­see­ing. All of them pro­vided gifts or ser­vices to con­fer­ence at­ten­dees, in­clud­ing a “spirit tast­ing and tapas din­ner,” mar­garita gift sets, Blue Man Group tick­ets and pad­fo­lios.

Sawyer told the Sen­tinel the univer­sity paid for the Blue Man tick­ets and pad­fo­lios, but the in­ves­tiga­tive re­port said there’s no ev­i­dence of that.

In­stead, the re­port said, the gifts vi­o­lated the state ethics code. Sawyer wrote in an email to the Sen­tinel they were not for per­sonal gain but to sup­port the con­fer­ence.

“I thought I had a clear un­der­stand­ing with my su­per­vi­sor as to how the univer­sity’s busi­ness part­ners sup­ported the con­fer­ence, but ap­par­ently I was mis­taken,” he wrote.

Dur­ing the in­ter­view with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, Sawyer ac­knowl­edged he also had al­lowed ven­dors to pay for meals and happy hours, a jacket and tick­ets to an Or­lando City Soc­cer Club match for him and his fam­ily, records show.

Late last year, a judge sided with a ven­dor that ar­gued the bid­ding process, un­der Sawyer’s direc­tion, had been skewed to­ward a com­peti­tor. For a decade, Cen­ter­plate sold con­ces­sions and al­co­hol at venues such as Spec­trum Sta­dium and CFE Arena, gen­er­at­ing $2.1 mil­lion in in 2016, ac­cord­ing to records from the state Divi­sion of Ad­min­is­tra­tive Hear­ings.

But last sum­mer, the univer­sity de­cided to award the con­tract to a dif­fer­ent ven­dor, Spectra. Cen­ter­plate said univer­sity em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing Sawyer, met pri­vately with Spectra and showed an “affin­ity” for its com­peti­tor. The judge’s de­ci­sion in fa­vor of Cen­ter­plate, Bishop wrote, “demon­strates the risk as­so­ci­ated with Mr. Sawyer’s con­tin­ued dis­re­gard for the state’s ethics laws.”

The univer­sity’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion also found that Sawyer, who vol­un­teers at his church, used his univer­sity com­puter and email to con­duct church busi­ness dur­ing work hours. In his in­ter­view with the univer­sity’s ethics of­fice, Sawyer said he works more than 40 hours each week and he some­times re­sponded to time­sen­si­tive church-re­lated issues while at work.

In the ear­lier in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Sawyer was found to have ac­cepted free tick­ets to Cirque du Soleil and Dis­ney Live events as well as for Hank Wil­liams Jr. and Dar­ius Rucker con­certs at CFE Arena. He also used univer­sity ve­hi­cles for per­sonal use, in­clud­ing a de­tour to Fort My­ers on the way home from a con­fer­ence in Miami, the 2014 probe de­ter­mined. Ad­di­tion­ally, other em­ploy­ees com­plained his man­age­ment style lent it­self to a “cul­ture of fear and in­tim­i­da­tion.”

UCF As­so­ciate Vice Pres­i­dent of Univer­sity Re­la­tions Curt Sawyer was paid $195,988 an­nu­ally.

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