Defense contests anti-gay portrait

University provost, one other counter claims.

June 26, 2007 

Two surprise witnesses took the stand Monday to dispute anti-gay accusations from earlier testimony in the civil trial between Fresno State and former volleyball coach Lindy Vivas.

Jeronima Echeverria, the university provost and vice president for academic affairs, testified she was promoted to "second in command" by university president John Welty even after informing him that she was a lesbian.

"He said it wasn't an issue for him and appreciated my candor," Echeverria said as she recounted a July 2003 conversation with Welty in which she told him she was gay and lived with a woman before agreeing to accept a promotion to her current position.

Vivas is suing Fresno State for $4.1 million, saying her contract was not renewed in 2004 because of her outspoken advocacy of gender equity and perceived sexual orientation.

University officials deny any discrimination, saying they did not renew Vivas' contract because she scheduled too few Top 25 opponents, won too few postseason matches and failed to increase attendance.

Echeverria's testimony countered what former women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein said in court last week -- that Welty "loathed" lesbians because his first wife left him for another woman.

Echeverria, who was not on the original witness list of roughly 50 people, said she contacted Fresno State attorney Dawn Theodora to volunteer to testify soon after learning about Johnson-Klein's testimony.

"I heard about it and found it so hard to believe that the court might think that John Welty loathes lesbians when his No. 2 is a lesbian," Echeverria said. "I was outraged by it.

"Testifying is not what people enjoy doing. But I called council and said I'd like to testify."

Vivas' attorney, Dan Siegel, tried to eliminate the testimony of both Echeverria and Deena Diboll, the former assistant athletic director for marketing and ex-wife to former athletic director Scott Johnson.

Neither Echeverria nor Diboll were on the original witness list.

But Judge Alan M. Simpson ruled in favor of Theodora, allowing her to bring in "surprise" witnesses for "impeachment purposes" of discrediting other witnesses. In this case, the target was Johnson-Klein.

Trying to dispel other parts of Johnson-Klein's testimony, Diboll talked about her marriage with Johnson and about her late sister, whom Diboll said was a lesbian.

Breaking down for a moment while on the stand, Diboll said Johnson always treated her sister well, along with her sister's partner.

"He treated her like family," said Diboll, who was married to Johnson from 1983-92. "Her partner was welcomed at our home."

Diboll added that she never heard Johnson refer to anyone as a lesbian or talk about anyone's sexual preference.

In earlier testimony, Johnson-Klein said Johnson often referred to Vivas as a lesbian, and that the former athletic director had a "lesbian hit list" -- as Theodora characterized -- of administrators and coaches who he wanted to fire.

Another witness for Fresno State, sports information director Steve Weakland, also contradicted earlier testimony.

In recounting "Ugly Women Athletes Day," Weakland called the April 2000 incident an inappropriate office prank for which he eventually was reprimanded.

Weakland denied making a poster, which he described as several cutout pictures of women's bodies with head shots of several male administrators pasted atop.

But he said he felt somewhat responsible after making a "sarcastic comment" with co-workers about ugly women in sports, which might have initiated the poster.

Weakland said he tried to apologize to several female coaches immediately after the incident.

"Every day since it happened, I feel terrible about it," Weakland said. "I wanted to take personal responsibility for making a comment that turned into a practical joke."

Throughout his testimony, Fresno State softball coach Margie Wright shook her head and rolled her eyes as she watched and listened from the gallery.

In her testimony two weeks ago, Wright identified Weakland as one of three school administrators -- in addition to Johnson and former assistant athletic director Jon Fagg -- who were celebrating the event by holding a potluck meal.

Weakland later became emotional on the stand when disputing testimony by "good friend" and former athletic trainer Miguel Rueda. In his testimony, Rueda claimed seeing Weakland, Johnson and other administrators exchange high-fives during a football road trip to Kansas State after learning that the Fresno State volleyball team had lost.

Monday ended with golf coach Mike Watney testifying that he got along well with his supervisor, former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich. But he also referred to Milutinovich as a "militant feminist."

The reporter can be reached at banteola@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6362.

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