The former director and former associate director of the Fresno Grand Opera filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court against the company and another former director for defamation and emotional distress.
Fresno lawyer Warren Paboojian filed the civil lawsuit Friday on behalf of Ronald D. Eichman and Thi Nguyen. Eichman served as general director from August 1998 to Dec. 5, 2014, and Nguyen as associate director from August 2008 until the end of November 2014. It names the opera and former director Matthew Buckman, who took over in the beginning of 2015 and left in February. There are also 50 unnamed defendants.
The lawsuit centers on a June 2016 story written by Fresno Bee arts writer Donald Munro in which the opera accused Eichman of mishandling the company’s finances and having various conflicts of interest, including using Fresno Grand Opera funds to benefit his for-profit concert promotion company. Buckman had submitted a 100-plus-page report on Eichman’s alleged misconduct to the opera’s board of directors, which also posted the findings to the Fresno Grand Opera website.
Several follow-up articles in The Bee and other media reports were also referenced in the suit.
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This report was forwarded to the California Attorney General’s Office, which refused to comment when asked if an investigation was in progress.
In the lawsuit, Paboojian said all the claims against his clients were false, and were deliberate attempts to hurt them professionally.
It reads: “(Eichman and Nguyen) ... allege that in order to distract from (Buckman’s) own inability to competently serve as both the Fresno Grand Opera general director and general director of Townsend Opera (in Modesto) and to damage the plaintiff’s reputations, Buckman provided false statements to the board of directors.”
The lawsuit alleges that Eichman and Nguyen began hearing disparaging rumors about themselves in the summer of 2015.
Buckman defended his report in an interview Tuesday.
“We put evidence, financial statements, board minutes with metaphysical data, contracts – signed and unsigned – in front of the board as part of our review of what had taken place during the leadership change,” Buckman said. “This review was based off of reports from our patrons.”
Buckman said his review was “frightening to see,” so he enlisted the help of lawyers and accountants to prepare the final report that was submitted to the board.
“No statements were from us,” Buckman said. “They were an analysis of financial records with documents to support and prove everything. I would welcome a more public review of the findings.”
Richard Jennings, board president of the opera company, had not seen a copy of the lawsuit and had no comment. “This is brand new to me,” he said.
The suit seeks unspecified damages.
News of the lawsuit hits as the opera company has struggled in recent years and appears to be on the brink of closing.