Professors Sue Oral Roberts President
A suit filed by three former professors charges financial, political and personal irregularities by the president of Oral Roberts University, including a claim that he illegally mobilized students to campaign for a Republican mayoral candidate.
The president, Richard Roberts, the son of the university founder, the television evangelist Oral Roberts, has offered a series of denials. But he declined yesterday to respond in detail to the accusations in the suit.
The ex-professors, citing a secret internal report by an official of the Oral Roberts Ministries, linked to the university in Tulsa, Okla., sued on Oct. 2. They also contended that the Roberts house on the campus had been remodeled 11 times in 14 years, that the university jet took family members on trips and that the family’s university-paid cellphones sent text messages to “under-age males — often between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.”
The plaintiffs said “some of the more salacious entries” were omitted from the suit “to preserve, as much as possible, the remaining positive image of the university.”
A plaintiff, John Swails, a 14-year tenured professor and the chairman of the department of history, humanities and government, said by phone he had been fired after providing a copy of the report to the university provost, Ralph Fagin, and the university’s Board of Regents in July. “It was the first they saw of it,” Mr. Swails said.
Mr. Fagin did not return a call to his office.
Another plaintiff, Tim Brooker, said in the suit that under pressure from university officials he gave inaccurate information to the Internal Revenue Service in an investigation of the political activities last year.
Mr. Roberts was on “Larry King Live” on Tuesday night with his wife, Lindsay, who is included in the accusations. He denied any improper political role, saying: “I didn’t ask or coerce anybody. That’s not true.”
He and Mrs. Roberts also denied wrongdoing to a list of other accusations in the suit.
Denials were also made to reporters who flew to New York with the Robertses in the university jet, which the suit described as university-owned but Mr. Roberts said was leased.
Gary L. Richardson of Tulsa, a lawyer for the professors, said he tried to call to the King show but was not put through, unlike Oral Roberts, now 89 and retired in California, who defended his son on the air.
On the campus, students said Mr. Roberts appeared at a midday prayer meeting and spoke briefly of the controversy. “He kind of made some jokes and had fun with it,” said Sara Swanson.
Ms. Swanson said she had watched Mr. Roberts on the King show. “If you know him really well, you could tell he was a little nervous,” she said. “But who wouldn’t be in that situation?”
Blogs in Oklahoma crackled with comments by alumni, neighbors and others for and against the Robertses and the university, which has 5,300 students.
The suit says the accusations come from a document compiled by a sister of Mrs. Roberts, Stephanie Cantese, community and governmental liaison aide for the Oral Roberts Ministries.
No listed telephone number could be found for Ms. Cantese, and university officials did not make her available for questions. The university Board of Regents voted last Friday to hire an independent auditor to review the accusations.
A spokesman for university, Jeremy Burton, said he had to refer all questions to Mr. Roberts, who did not respond to requests for an interview.
Tax law strictly limits the political activities of nonprofit groups, as well as the use of a charity’s assets by insiders like the Roberts family. The university’s reported ownership of a plane might also raise questions, lawyers said. Harvard, the nation’s wealthiest nonprofit institution, does not own a plane.
In the 1960s, the I.R.S. ruled that a college could require students to work on political campaigns as part of a class assignment. But the agency did not address whether a nonprofit group could direct students to work on a specific campaign in the way the suit contends that Oral Roberts students were managed.
The suit raises potential problems for the university that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status, said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington who previously ran an I.R.S. division that oversees nonprofit groups.
If it is determined that university officials misled the tax agency in the inquiry on the political activities, the Justice Department could begin a criminal investigation, Mr. Owens said.
The state suit was filed by Mr. Swails along with Mr. Brooker, a professor in the government program, and his wife, Paulita Brooker, an adjunct professor of history, humanities and government and, since last year, an employee in the School of Lifelong Education. They said that after bringing accusations of wrongdoing to the attention of university officials, Mr. Swails and Ms. Brooker were fired and Mr. Brooker was pressed to resign.
They said that in December 2005 Mr. Brooker was told by Mr. Roberts and Ms. Cantese to mobilize students on behalf of a candidate in the Republican primary for mayor of Tulsa, Randi Miller. Ms. Miller lost but was later elected a county commissioner. She did not return a call to her office.
Mr. Brooker said he opposed the effort as illegal but was ordered to do it, anyway. In May 2006, the suit says, the I.R.S. investigated the university’s role in the campaign and Mr. Brooker gave inaccurate information to take the blame and shield Mr. Roberts and other officials in what Mr. Brooker called a cover-up.
He says he was later made the scapegoat, denied $18,000 in pay and forced out.
The suit also says a student working in the Miller campaign, with access to Ms. Cantese’s computer, came across a “substantial documentation of immoral and improper conduct” and gave it to the professors.
Mr. Roberts told Larry King that he had asked Ms. Cantese to be his “eyes and ears and from time to time to make notes on things that she heard.”
Mr. Roberts described them only as rumors and said: “I laughed. They were so preposterous and untrue.”
Stephanie Strom and Ben Fenwick contributed reporting.
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. - Seneca