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GRAM questions whether former exec can claim whistleblower status in lawsuit

BY Friday, November 03, 2017 10:38am

GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) has asked a judge to rule on whether a former executive who filed a lawsuit alleging the nonprofit routinely misused restricted funds can claim whistleblower status.

In a motion for summary disposition filed on Oct. 30 by GRAM attorneys with Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone PLC, the organization contends that because the GRAM does not qualify as a “public body,” former COO D. Neil Bremer cannot claim whistleblower protection status, according to court records reviewed by MiBiz.

“GRAM is not ‘primarily funded by or through a state or local authority,’” Leigh Schultz, a labor and employment attorney in Miller Canfield’s Chicago and Kalamazoo offices, wrote in court filings earlier this week. “To qualify as a public body as a result of funding, a body must receive at least half of its total funding from state or local government grants or subsidies.”

The art museum only receives a “nominal amount of funding” from public organizations, accounting for 0.5 percent of its revenue in fiscal year 2017, court documents state.

The GRAM’s motion for summary disposition — as well as a motion to delay the discovery period pending a ruling on the motion — does not address Bremer’s broader claims that the museum’s executive staff frequently used donor-restricted funds as part of its everyday operations and that threats to bring the charges to the GRAM’s board led to his firing in June.

“Those allegations — even if true, which GRAM certainly disputes — arise to nothing more than a corporate management dispute and ‘lack the kind of violation of a clearly mandated public policy that would support an action for retaliatory discharge,’” GRAM attorneys stated in court filings. “In fact, in this case Plaintiff does not even identify or allege any specific sources of public policy upon which his claim arises.”

Through a spokesperson, Schultz declined to be interviewed for this report.  

“Due to the pending litigation we’re unable to answer your questions,” GRAM officials said in a statement. “We can say, however that we fully reject the accusations cited in the complaint and have strong documentation to refute the complaint. The allegations have no merit whatsoever and GRAM’s actions have at all times been entirely lawful and appropriate.”

However, Bremer’s attorney maintains that the allegations do hold merit.

Bill Howard, an attorney with the Howard Law Group in Grand Rapids representing Bremer, contends that the terminated executive can claim status under the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) on a number of fronts, including that the law incorporates actual reporting of suspected misdeeds, as well as “about to report situations.”

“This lawsuit is about the violation of the public trust by the GRAM in allegedly misusing restricted funds,” Howard wrote in an email on Friday morning. “They seek to avoid discussing this or be transparent with the public in filing this premature motion.”

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