Wright State University President David Hopkins fired the school’s senior advisor to the provost because federal prosecutors led him to believe the administrator would be indicted for visa fraud, filings in a lawsuit show.
Ryan Fendley was fired in August 2015 in the midst of a federal probe into possible visa fraud. Fendley later sued the university, and recent court records as part of that lawsuit reveal new information about an investigation that began more than two years ago.
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Fendley says the university can point to no reason for his firing in August 2015. But records filed by Wright State in response say Hopkins “understood after conversations with federal prosecutors and investigators that Fendley was believed to have engaged in criminal behavior.”
No charges have been filed, although the investigation is continuing, according to information in the court filings.
Hopkins testified at a deposition that in February 2015 he became aware the U.S. Attorney’s Office was investigating research contracts between WSU and a the Washington Twp.-based company, Web Yoga, the court records show.
During that deposition, Hopkins was asked by Fendley’s attorney, Ted Copetas, if he would consider the firing a mistake in the event that Fendley is not indicted.
“Yes,” Hopkins responded.
Copetas revealed details of the deposition in records filed last month in the Ohio Court of Claims.
“In particular, the U.S. Attorneys’ office was investigating whether the use of H-1B foreign worker visas in connection with those contracts amounted to visa fraud and focused its investigation primarily on three individuals: WSU’s Provost, Sundaram Narayanan, WSU’ s Principal Investigator in charge of overseeing the Web Yoga contracts, Phani Kidambi, and Mr. Fendley, who was the Director of WSRI at the time the contracts were signed,” the filing says.
Narayanan and Kidambi were terminated from their administrative posts but have remained on paid leave since May 2015. A fourth administrator, the university’s chief general counsel, was placed on administrative leave and retired after reaching a separation agreement.
The I-Team first reported in 2015 that WSU sponsored H-1B visas for 19 foreign workers for Web Yoga, a local information technology staffing firm, in an arrangement that immigration experts said could have violated immigration laws designed to prevent staffing agencies from trafficking in cheap labor from overseas.
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Web Yoga Vice President Tamiko Lawton said when contacted this week that she was unaware of any federal investigation involving her company. Company president Vijay Vallahbaneni is out of the country on business, she said.
In a statement to the newspaper, Wright State said it does not comment on pending litigation. But in the court filings, its attorneys argue that Fendley was fired for “just cause” because “the President’s honest belief that Fendley had participated in criminal activity related to visa fraud for which he was under federal investigation.
“While Hopkins could not enumerate the specific law Fendley violated, he understood after conversations with federal prosecutors and investigators that Fendley was believed to have engaged in criminal behavior related to immigration matters while employed…at Wright State University,” wrote Lee Ann Rabe, an assistant attorney general representing Wright State.
Copetas argues that Wright State has no evidence to justify the firing because it did not conduct an internal investigation on Fendley. In their court filing, WSU attorneys say they were told not to interfere with the federal investigation.
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This newspaper is working to obtain a full copy of Hopkins’ deposition.
“If (Fendley) never gets indicted, would that lead you to conclude that, well, maybe he didn’t engage in any criminal activity?” Hopkins was asked by Copetas during the deposition, according to the court records.
After an objection from Rabe, Hopkins answers: “Yes. If he’s not indicted, yes. But it was very clear to me that that was the intent.”
“And if he’s not indicted, then in your mind, terminating him would have been a mistake?” Copetas asked. “Is that fair?”
After Rabe noted another objection to the question, Hopkins answered “yes.”
Fendley’s lawsuit seeks $249,000 from Wright State. In a separate breach of contract suit brought in Greene County Common Pleas Court, the Wright State Applied Research Corporation paid Fendley $13,209 as part of a settlement.
Wright State’s responses in the state court case note that the federal investigation is still under way.
“A person in such a high ranking position, such as Fendley, who is believed to be involved in criminal activity, brings disrepute upon Wright State,” the university’s attorney wrote in a Feb. 21 filing. “To preserve its reputation, Wright State had no choice but to disassociate itself with such behavior, thus the cause for the termination.”
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