News from Day 3 of Ward Churchill’s Lawsuit Against the University of Colorado

Yesterday, Wednesday 11 March 2009, was day three in the lawsuit brought by Ward Churchill against the University of Colorado, over his firing from a tenured position, allegedly on the grounds of shoddy scholarship, but immediately following mass mediated controversy over his 9/11 essay. Here is part of what happened on Day Three, which featured testimony by former Colorado governor Bill Owens, as well as other university professors and officials.

Thanks to the Daily Camera, for the coverage below, and The Race to the Bottom, whose coverage is also more complete than what is presented below. The two sources largely confirm each other’s record of the proceedings.

I am focusing on the exchange between former Owens and Churchill’s attorney David Lane, for the ways it manifests an intent to fire Churchill on political grounds. Emphases added, in the form of underlined passages, are mine.

Weds. 11 March 2009 — 1:58 p.m.

Former Colorado Governor Bill Owens answers questions asked by David Lane during Ward Churchill's civil suit against the University of Colorado at the City and County Building in Denver, Colorado March 11, 2009. Churchill is suing the University of Colorado for wrongful termination. CAMERA/Mark Leffingwell
Former Colorado Governor Bill Owens answers questions asked by David Lane during Ward Churchill's civil suit against the University of Colorado at the City and County Building in Denver, Colorado March 11, 2009. Churchill is suing the University of Colorado for wrongful termination. CAMERA/Mark Leffingwell

Former Gov. Bill Owens on the stand

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens is now testifying. He is answering questions from Ward Churchill’s lawyer, David Lane.

Lane says Owens pressured CU to fire prof

The former governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, jousted with Ward Churchill’s attorney Wednesday afternoon, denying that he had a grand strategy for getting rid of the controversial professor or had ever conspired with CU to do so.

Attorney David Lane began his questioning of Owens by playing for the jury a video of a deposition of former CU President Betsy Hoffman, in which Hoffman said Owens called her a few days after Churchill’s 9/11 essay began to make headlines to demand that she “fire Ward Churchill tomorrow.”

She testified in that proceeding that Owens told her if she didn’t, that he would “unleash his plan.”

“It was very short, threatening phone call,” she was seen saying.

Owens said he didn’t recall making those kinds of statements to Hoffman.

“I don’t remember that conversation, but it doesn’t sound like me,” the former governor testified. “I don’t deal with people in an angry and threatening way.”

Lane next challenged Owens on statements he made to Bill O’Reilly, on the conservative talk-show host’s national TV program, on March 29, 2005.

He showed a transcript of the show to the jury and highlighted a response Owens gave when O’Reilly asked him if he had any power to remove Churchill from CU.

Owens told O’Reilly he couldn’t fire him, but that he did have some authority over the state budget.

“I do have some budget authority over the budget,” Owens said to O’Reilly, according to the transcript. “I do have some bully pulpit authority.”

Lane asked the former governor if that didn’t constitute a “not so veiled threat” to CU to fire Churchill or else risk a cut in its budget.

“I wouldn’t suggest its a veiled threat, it’s just stating a fact,” Owens said.

Lane asked why he would bring up his budget authority during the interview if it didn’t have to do with the prospect of Churchill’s termination.

“Why are you pointing that out?” Lane asked.

“Because it’s a fact,” said Owens, as soft laughter rippled through the courtroom.

Lane asked if Owens didn’t in fact have line-item veto authority over the budget and could redline out money for CU if he so chose.

“That little red pen may come out at budget time, correct?” Lane asked.

“It could come out for any reason at any time,” Owens responded.

The former governor said CU’s budget had actually increased on an annual basis every year he was governor, from 1999 to 2007.

Lane said wasn’t the annual increase due to the fact that CU was complying with Owens’ wishes that Churchill be fired.

“No sir, that wasn’t the reason their budget wasn’t being cut,” the former governor told the jury.

Lane pushed further, quoting Owens on O’Reilly’s show after the talk-show host told the governor that it looked like a process was in place to methodically get Churchill fired in a way that wouldn’t pose any legal problems.

Lane said it sounded like Owens was describing a grand plan for finishing off Churchill as a professor.

“That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right,” the transcript shows Owens telling O’Reilly. “The process is starting. I think it will result in his being fired.”

Owens testified that he was just telling O’Reilly that the evidence he had seen in the two months or so since the controversy had erupted — with allegations of academic misconduct being leveled against Churchill — indicated that Churchill would likely be fired. He denied having a plan to get the professor sacked.

Owens did acknowledge that he was wrong to have called for Churchill’s firing in the early days of the controversy.

“What the regents chose to do — through a several-year process — was superior to my initial suggestion,” Owens testified.

But he denied ever putting pressure on any of the faculty members who eventually decided Churchill’s fate and testified that he never met with any CU staff or administration figures to carry out a plan for his termination.

“You did not and would not conspire with the university to get rid of Ward Churchill,” CU attorney Patrick O’Rourke asked during cross-examination.

“No, I did not,” Owens replied.

The former governor, in answer to a jury question about whether he cared more about CU’s budget or more about First Amendment rights, said he valued both.

Owens stepped down.

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