Sides differ as testimony turns heated

Alleged Johnson-Klein comment draws ire.

October 18, 2007 

It was a threat, pure and simple, John Welty said, made to him by the woman he had suspended only 24 hours earlier.

But what kind? Of that, Fresno State President Welty never got to explain Thursday at the sexual discrimination trial of former women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein.

Under questioning from Fresno State lawyer Mick Marderosian, Welty said he returned to his office at about 1 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2005 to find a message to call Johnson-Klein. She had called about an hour earlier, asking to speak to him.

The day before, Welty had suspended the third-year coach with pay for possible but unidentified violations of university policy. They didn't remain secret for long. In about a month, the university released a 380-page report full of Johnson-Klein's alleged failings but all boiling down to this: Her erratic behavior threatened the health and welfare of her athletes.

Johnson-Klein's lawsuit alleges a different reason: Her repeated complaints about the the university's unequal treatment of women athletes and the sexual harassment she suffered from some male administrators obsessed with her clothing and body made her unacceptable as an employee in Fresno State's eyes.

His conversation with Johnson-Klein on that February afternoon went something like this, Welty testified in Fresno County Superior Court:

Johnson-Klein said "if I just listened to her, everything would be fine," he said.

The university had started an investigation into her actions and it "must be completed," Welty said he replied.

To which, according to Welty, Johnson-Klein said "that wouldn't be satisfactory and she just would have to play the card."

Welty fired Johnson-Klein on March 2, 2005, and about six months later she filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation for her gender-equity advocacy.

Welty confirmed that he viewed the phrase "play the card" as a threat.

But a threat of what?

That was Marderosian's next question, and Welty had begun an answer when Johnson-Klein lawyer Warren Paboojian objected. Welty would be speculating, Paboojian said.

Judge Donald S. Black agreed, and Welty wasn't permitted to finish.

But Welty's brief recollection of that phone conversation -- only a minute or two out of his nearly five hours in the witness box -- illustrates a key point the jury must consider: Is Johnson-Klein the victim of a sexist, male-dominated university administration that loathes gender equity? Or is she only claiming to be a victim to cover up irresponsible behavior that led to a justifiable firing?

Marderosian and Paboojian battled each other ferociously throughout the day. The session got so contentious at times that at the end, after the jury had been dismissed and told to return Monday, Black warned the lawyers about their misbehavior.

Marderosian was arguing about the bench's ruling on objections, Black said. And some people sitting at the plaintiff's table -- no names were mentioned, but only Johnson-Klein, Paboojian and co-counsel Dan Siegel were there -- had made faces at some of his rulings, Black said.

During the weekend, Black said, he'll consider whether to start issuing fines for lawyer incivility. Black and a bailiff also warned spectators to stop their chatter or risk being told to leave.

Welty testified for two hours on Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday morning began with Paboojian continuing his questioning.

Welty acknowledged that, "in hindsight," it may have been a mistake to name Scott Johnson as athletic director in 2002. Paboojian has alleged Johnson made sexual advances to Johnson-Klein and opposed gender equity.

Paboojian questioned Welty extensively about the university's response once it learned Johnson-Klein had taken a half-bottle of prescription painkillers from a player. Welty has said repeatedly this act was pivotal in his decision to fire Johnson-Klein.

Paboojian asked Welty if he or university administrators phoned Johnson-Klein to ask why she took the bottle. Paboojian asked Welty if he or administrators told Johnson-Klein she might need help and should consider entering the university's Employee Assistance Program, a voluntary program for people with problems such as substance abuse.

Welty said he didn't ask Johnson-Klein about the bottle, or suggest she enter the program. He said he didn't know if administrators did either of these things.

With Marderosian asking the questions, Welty said Johnson-Klein's policy violations went beyond taking a student's painkillers.

Welty said these included humiliating treatment of some players. He said Johnson-Klein had a player pack her bags on a road trip, including removing wet clothing from a bathtub.

Johnson-Klein might have saved her job if, even after the university completed its investigation shortly before the firing, had she admitted her mistakes and apologized for them, Welty said.

But, he said, she never did this.

The reporter can be reached at ghostetter@fresnobee.com or(559) 441-6272.

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