Marek Warszawski

Pick a side. Divisive Fresno State-Jim Bartko legal brawl promises to get messy

Fresno State President Joseph Castro, left, and former athletic director Jim Bartko share the podium during happier times in 2014. Four years later, Bartko has filed a legal brief claiming he was forced to resign "in shock and under duress."
Fresno State President Joseph Castro, left, and former athletic director Jim Bartko share the podium during happier times in 2014. Four years later, Bartko has filed a legal brief claiming he was forced to resign "in shock and under duress." THE FRESNO BEE

The timing couldn't be more awkward. Just as Fresno State starts to line up a new athletic director, the previous one kicks over a wasp nest.

Get your popcorn ready, Bulldogs fans. You've got front-row seats to what promises to be a juicy legal fight.

In one version of what occurred last November, Jim Bartko walked into the office of Fresno State President Joseph Castro and abruptly resigned for personal reasons.

In another, Castro was a manipulative, unsupportive boss who praised his subordinate in public while he and other administrators engaged in a "whisper campaign" meant to label Bartko as an "incompetent alcoholic" in the days leading up to his forced resignation.

Which version will hold sway in a courtroom? That's up to a judge and jury to decide, provided the two parties don't settle.

In a 13-page claim filed with the Cal State University chancellor's office, Bartko is asking for $3 million in damages for wrongful termination, retaliation, defamation, discrimination on the basis of mental disability/mental condition and a bunch of other mean things that paint an ugly picture of how Fresno State handled his departure.

Hoo boy.

The claim is obviously one-sided. It provides only Bartko's version of events. Fresno State will get the chance to present its side, if it so chooses.

I'm thinking the university had better respond, because the context and subtext of Bartko's claim is pretty damning. If unchallenged, it will be accepted as truth in the court of public opinion.

Bartko was a popular figure in the community, remains so in some circles, and the last thing Fresno State needs at present is another reason for fans and boosters to go "Hmm, hold up a minute" before buying football tickets or donating to the scholarship fund.

Does the name Randa Jarrar ring a bell?

I'm going to surmise the timing of this isn't incidental. Bartko and his legal peeps know Fresno State, after seven months of twiddling around, is starting to interview finalists for his old job. A new person will soon be in the AD's office. (Unless it's the interim guy, Steve Robertello, who is already occupying that space.) His statement and the release of the claim was done to maximum disruptive effect.

It may even cause on-the-fence candidates to hop off. Wednesday, the two sides traded jabs. Bartko issued a statement confirming what I told you in November, that his resignation was anything but voluntary, and Fresno State quickly countered by releasing the signed settlement agreement.

An accompanying quote by Vice President of Administration Debbie Adishian-Astone revealed Bartko had cashed severance pay checks totaling about $75,000.

"See, Bartko took the money," the university appeared to be telling us. "That's how aggrieved he is."

Thursday, after Bartko's San Diego-based lawyers emailed a copy of the claim to The Bee, we found out exactly what he meant by "in shock and under duress."

In college athletics, it's commonplace for a coach or administrator to be presented with the either-or choice of resign or get fired.

Ninety-eight out of 100 times, people put in that position will choose to resign even though they're being pressured into it. Both sides save face and the jettisoned party doesn't end up with the f word on their resume.

But the harsh, callous manner in which Fresno State handled Bartko's departure seems out of the ordinary. The claim states Bartko was blindsided during what he thought was a regular one-on-one meeting with Castro and given 5 minutes to choose the red or blue pill. That's not even enough time to read the paperwork and think through options, let alone consult anyone.

Furthermore, the university acted incredibly petty. There's no reason why someone needed to drive over to Bartko's house at 6:30 the following morning and wake up his wife and daughter by pounding on the front door to collect Bartko's courtesy car.

Seriously? That couldn't have waited till a reasonable hour?

At the crux of this disagreement are two issues that may or may not be related: Bartko's brave admission, following four decades of silence, that he was sexually abused as a child by a Catholic priest, and his propensity for consuming alcohol, sometimes while conducting university business.

While Bartko denies he is an alcoholic, both in the legal brief and to me in one-on-one conversation, there is ample evidence to suggest the contrary. First and foremost, the divorce papers filed in July 2017 by his former wife stating that Bartko "is an alcoholic and has a history of drunk driving with me and/or my daughter in his vehicle." Then there are the first-hand accounts, told to me by key boosters and others with ties to the university. Finally, my own personal experiences and observations.

It's clear that Bartko's excessive drinking, or at least stories about his excessive drinking, played a role in his departure. If Bartko drove under the influence, as has been alleged, the liability risk for Fresno State was immense. Especially if it could be proven in court that the university knew beforehand.

The sexual abuse issue is just as thorny. While it appears Castro was sympathetic and supportive, at least initially, that sympathy and support began to wane when Bartko needed to step away from his duties to seek treatment.

Bartko's attorneys will be sure to label Castro as uncaring. They may even contend he didn't want the stigma of a child sexual abuse survivor running Bulldogs athletics – especially one so open about it.

Fresno State, meanwhile, will surely argue that the trauma Bartko suffered and treatment he needed, combined with excessive drinking, made him ineffective in his job.

The only certainty: Things are about to get messy, at a time when Fresno State is already short of Windex and paper towels.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee