The woman who initiated an ethics complaint against Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas is a former student who withdrew from the college while facing discipline for allegedly feeding marijuana-infused empanadas to people on campus – a charge the woman denies.
Thomas has a hearing Tuesday in Denver in front of the state’s Independent Ethics Commission about claims that she abused her official position on a fundraising trip to Dubai. Thomas and the college’s Board of Trustees say she did nothing out of the ordinary or wrong.
A company called Lark’s Wing LLC filed the complaint.
Rose M. Daniel, a Durango resident and former FLC student, filed papers with the Secretary of State’s Office to legally create Lark’s Wing. The ethics complaint includes Daniel’s signature and lists her as “manager.”
However, Daniel has left Lark’s Wing LLC and no longer is involved in the ethics case, said Matthew Campbell, a lawyer for the company.
The “remaining members and managers” of Lark’s Wing will continue with the ethics case, Campbell wrote Thursday in a filing to the Independent Ethics Commission. In an interview, he declined to say who else was a member of the company. Lark’s Wing was formed solely to file the ethics complaint, Campbell said.
Campbell also represented Daniel in two civil-rights lawsuits she filed against an FLC administrator, stemming from allegations by campus police that Daniel brought apricot and pumpkin empanadas spiced with marijuana to the offices of the freshman math program and the Program for Academic Advancement on Nov. 15, 2010.
Several people fell ill after eating the pastries, according to documents filed in the federal lawsuit.
“She completely denies any wrongdoing,” Campbell said. “She demands a hearing.”
Tests performed on the empanadas confirmed the presence of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to a fax from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation lab in Durango to FLC police.
However, Campbell said he thinks the lab tests are prone to returning a false positive result.
FLC police pressed charges, but 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg declined to prosecute the case. A Feb. 4, 2011, letter from his office to Fort Lewis police said prosecutors would not be able to prove the case.
“There is no evidence the suspect intentionally gave drugged food to her friends,” the letter said,
Daniel withdrew from FLC in January 2011, 11 credit hours short of a degree, before the discipline case could run its course.
The same month, she filed civil-rights lawsuits in state and federal court against Haeryon Kim, the college’s dean of students, claiming that Kim was breaking the college’s own discipline policy by not allowing her a hearing to prove her case. A judge dismissed the federal case – without blocking her from filing another lawsuit – and Daniel withdrew the state case, both in August 2011.
Campbell argued in a written response to the ethics commission that Daniel’s history with the school is irrelevant.
“Ms. Daniel is not the complainant – Lark’s Wing LLC is,” Campbell wrote. “Ms. Daniel’s previous lawsuits between herself and the university had and have absolutely nothing to do with Dr. Thomas and the assertions in the complaint.”
Daniel filed an open-records request about Thomas’ February trip after reading about it in The Durango Herald, Campbell said in an interview.
“Her only involvement in this was filing the original open-records request, getting the documents back, and that’s it,” he said.
The Lark’s Wing complaint alleges that Thomas improperly accepted benefits, including approximately $10,000 for a dinner reception at the Burj al Arab, one of the top hotels in the world; per diem payments from the college; and airfare to Dubai for her husband.
A lawyer for FLC wrote that Thomas took the trip to court an alumnus, a wealthy sheikh who is chairman of one of the largest beverage distributors in the Middle East. Thomas also met with about 20 other alumni in the region.
While she did some personal sightseeing, Thomas worked on college business every day of the eight-day trip, including meeting with the minister of education for the United Arab Emirates, according to a motion filed with the Independent Ethics Commission by First Assistant Attorney General Michelle Merz-Hutchinson.
Public officials are barred from receiving most gifts, including meals, under a constitutional amendment adopted by Colorado voters in 2006. State legislators, who frequently attend banquets, have found they can comply with the amendment by giving a brief speech at a meal.
Thomas made a speech at the Burj al Arab about the importance of refurbishing Berndt Hall, the science building.
However, Campbell plans to argue at Tuesday’s hearing that Thomas’ case is different. Emails and invitations show that the banquet was arranged “in her honor,” according to an email from the sheikh, Adel Aujan, that Campbell provided to the Herald.
When Thomas attended a banquet in her own honor, she violated the ethics law, Campbell said.
FLC officials disagree. Thomas could have claimed a hotel reimbursement but did not because she stayed with a former professor. Her husband, Gordon Thomas, came along out of respect for Arab customs that would have forbidden her from meeting the sheikh alone, Merz-Hutchinson wrote.
Merz-Hutchinson wants the ethics commission to dismiss the complaint without a hearing. Her motion noted Daniel’s history with Fort Lewis.