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Dean named in Wilder lawsuit steps down; VCU says suit ‘lacks legal merit’

Posted at 1:07 PM, Apr 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-05 13:08:40-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs agreed to step down amid a lawsuit filed by former Governor Wilder against multiple parties at Virginia Commonwealth University.  The lawsuit, filed against VCU, VCU President Michael Rao, former Dean Dr. John Accordino, and VCU Provost Gail Hackett, alleges school officials failed to fairly process allegations of sexual harassment and abuse brought forward by Wilder's administrative assistant and failed to implement any discipline against the abusive employee.

Accordino, who has served at VCU for over 30 years, began a study-research leave and plans to return to teaching VCU classes in fall 2019.  He denies the allegations in the lawsuit.

Provost Hackett said in a letter distributed to Wilder School faculty that the case lacks legal merit, but has "caused a considerable amount of distraction from the core business of the Wilder School."

"Dr. Accordino has experienced and continues to experience support from the School’s administration, faculty, staff and alumni, and from leaders in the Richmond community, due to his decades-long community service and leadership in the urban planning field in Richmond and throughout Virginia," Hackett said.

An acting dean will be appointed very shortly, and the search is underway for an interim dean, Hackett said.

The lawsuit

The suit alleges that in Nov. 2017,  Accordino violated university rules when he verbally assaulted and abused Wilder’s assistant Angelica Bega. Wilder was not present when Accordino dropped by, and according to the suit, insulted her intelligence, threatened her employment with VCU and “generally disparaged her humanity.”

The suit alleges that Accordino’s abuse “was such that others within the department, throughout the building, heard his harangue.”

Associate Professor Dr. Kristine Artello informed Wilder that she heard the event through her closed office door and volunteered to provide a written account of Accordino’s alleged abuse.

Wilder, however, alleges that the investigation led by the Provost’s Office failed at multiple points to fairly process Bega’s complaint, and incorrectly concluded that Bega was uninterested in filing a complaint.

Wilder next reported the allegations to VCU’s Human Resources Department and President Rao, where the verbal abuse was identified as sexual harassment and both racial and sexual discrimination.

VCU Public Affairs confirmed that out-of-state firm Seyfarth Shaw was retained to investigate the claims.

According to the suit, Wilder claims that their investigation found the claims against Accordino were credible.  Wilder claims that Provost Hackett attempted to interfere with the investigation.

The suit also alleges that Accordino, because he was never disciplined, was able to continue confrontational, abusive behavior in his supervisory position, and that no efforts were made to protect the affected staff.

Wilder claims that Accordino was emboldened by lack of discipline and threatened litigation against Wilder. The suit seeks for a Declaratory Judgement against the named parties, a $2,500 civil penalty against VCU, and an injunction protecting staff involved in the suit from further retaliation.

VCU’s Public Affairs office released a statement which said they haven’t been served with the suit and would not discuss pending litigation.

Accordino, whose career at the University stretches back over 30 years, was named dean to the Wilder school effective March 1, after serving for almost a year as the interim dean.

VCU Public Affairs responded that they do not comment on personnel issues when asked if any prior human resource complaints were made against Accordino.