Former Fresno State Athletic Director Jim Bartko says in a claim against Fresno State that he was forced to resign after being subjected to President Joseph Castro's "whisper campaign" and that the university should pay him $3 million in damages for emotional distress, defaming him and for "conscious disregard" for his legal rights.
In a 13-page claim, Bartko goes into detail about how Castro, Vice President Deborah Adishian-Astone and interim Athletic Director Steve Robertello undermined him by secretly telling donors and prominent member in the community that he "was going to get fired because he was an alcoholic and he wasn't doing his job."
"Like a stone thrown into a pond, the 'whisper campaign' caused a ripple effect that continues to cause damage to Mr. Bartko's reputation," his claim says.
Another bombshell in the claim: Bartko says Castro and Adishian-Astone were upset with him for hiring football coach Jeff Tedford without consulting Castro and Adishian-Astone over terms of the coach's contract.
The claim spells out what Bartko alleges happened to him:
He says he was blindsided by Castro and Adishian-Astone when he was terminated Nov. 6. Bartko says he went to his weekly one-on-one meeting with Castro in the president's office when he was surprised to see Adishian-Astone there. He thought they were going to talk about the success of the Bulldogs football team since Fresno State was going to a bowl game.
Instead, Castro gave him a choice: "He was told that he could either be fired 'for cause,' or he could resign and receive a minimal severance."
Bartko believed that if he didn't voluntarily resign, he would face public release of information about his termination. The information was in a five-page "termination letter that essentially (and falsely) branded him an incompetent alcoholic."
If he didn't resign, his termination would have tarnished his 33-year career, embarrassed his wife and children, and crushed him financially, his claim says. "Resignation, on the other hand, saved Mr. Bartko from the humiliation of being branded an incompetent alcoholic."
Bartko contends he was not given sufficient time to review his options or read the resignation documents. He asked several times if he could speak with an attorney, but was initially told no. Then he was given five minutes to try to call someone, but he was unsuccessful in reaching his wife.
Once five minutes passed, his claim says, Adishian-Astone said: "Time's up, you have to make a decision."
"In shock and under duress," Bartko signed a brief resignation statement "that was placed in front of him." He also "was directed to sign a document, also placed in front of him, called 'Settlement Agreement and Release' that included a waiver 'of any right (he) may have under law or regulation to seek reconsideration or to revoke his resignation.'"
Soon after, Fresno State staff was notified and a news release was issued by the university. Bartko says he was ordered to clean out his office, but instead went home without collecting his personal items.
Bartko says he and his family were awakened at 6:30 a.m. the next day by "pounding on the door" to their home. It was a Fresno State official demanding Bartko's courtesy vehicle.
Bartko is represented by San Diego attorney K. Elizabeth Dunn. His claim identifies the defendants as California State University, Fresno; Castro; Adishian-Astone; Robertello; and the university's Athletic Corporation.
Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the CSU system, says Bartko's claim was denied. A denial of a claim usually leads to a lawsuit.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, the university cited an agreement that Bartko signed on Nov. 6, 2017, and reiterated that the former athletic director voluntarily resigned and received severance pay of $75,000. "He accepted, and we have confirmation that he cashed the checks," Adishian-Astone said.
Fresno State on Thursday said it would have no further comment on Bartko's claim. But Bartko's lawyer said she wants a court to determine whether Bartko's settlement agreement is legally valid.
"Fresno State publicly released documents suggesting that Mr. Bartko voluntarily and thoughtfully resigned and released any claims against the University," Dunn said in an email. "For a release of a claim to be valid, the release must be knowing and voluntary and signed without duress."
"We intend to ask the court to decide whether that happened here," Dunn said. "We don't think it did."
Bartko previously revealed back in January 2017 that he'd been molested as a child and needed to be placed in a treatment facility.
In an email Wednesday, Bartko said he does not regret telling his story about dealing with sexual abuse as a child but wished Fresno State had "given more support and compassion ... including a more appropriately-handled departure."
In addition to his claim that Fresno wrongfully terminated him and breached his contract, Bartko contends that he suffered "retaliation and discrimination on the basis of his mental disability/mental condition." He contends the university also failed to accommodate his disability.
Bartko was hired by Castro in November 2014 and started a five-year contract as athletic director on Jan. 1, 2015.
In his claim, he says he "hit the ground" running and in his performance review in August 2015, signed by Castro, he was told he did "an exemplary job." In a performance review in September 2016, Bartko's claim says, Castro told him that he "has worked tirelessly to strengthen relationships with existing donors and established new relationships with new donors. He also has hired a talented senior team and exemplary coaches."
But stress started mounting in October 2016, when Bartko announced the termination of football coach Tim DeRuyter midseason. DeRuyter's contract had been extended by Castro two years earlier. In his claim, Bartko says that at the time he was suffering from exhaustion, anxiety and insomnia. "The cause of his symptoms would soon be revealed to be PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and anxiety related to abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a Catholic priest," his claim says.
After playing a key role in hiring Tedford, Bartko says he began suffering chest pains and later sough treatment for his anxiety and panic attacks, the claims says. Bartko says he told Castro in December 2016 about his medical condition and childhood abuse. He says Castro sent him an email that said; "I wish you the best in your treatment."
All was well until February 2017, when he received a letter from Castro that Bartko says criticized him for hiring Tedford without consulting him and Adishian-Astone over terms of the coach's contract (best in the Mountain West Conference), and how he handled his leave of absence to get mental health treatment.
Over the months, the claim says, Castro and Adishian-Astone criticized Bartko's job performance. "President Castro also mentioned during a meeting (for the first time) that he (had) smelled alcohol on Mr. Bartko's breath on Valentines Day," the claims says. Bartko was surprised to hear this, the claims says, because Castro and other university officials "on occasion" drink alcoholic beverages themselves at university events.
Bartko says he was not told that he could not drink alcoholic beverages. There is no policy or rule that prohibits Fresno State employees from doing it, his claim says.
As time went on the relationship between Castro and Bartko got worse, the claim says. Castro put Bartko on an specific improvement plan, which Bartko says in his claim "is a sham and pretextual act of discrimination and/or retaliation."
Castro put other demands on Bartko, the claim says, that were "simply unrealistic and constructed to created tighter controls on Mr. Bartko." Despite Castro's critcism of him, Bartko said he continuted to perform his job duties with success up until Castrol called him into his office on Nov. 6.