Judge backs FAMU in suit

Published May 2, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The woman who headed Florida A&M University's top scholarship programs under then-president Frederick Humphries - the programs that did more than anything to boost FAMU's academic profile in the 1990s - has lost a whistle-blower suit against the school.

A Leon County circuit judge ruled Monday that Dedra B. Azonobi O'Neal, 45, did not prove FAMU officials retaliated against her in 2002 and 2003 after she alleged the programs were being financially mishandled.

Judge Thomas Bateman III sided with FAMU officials who said O'Neal became increasingly hard to work with after Humphries' successor, interim president Henry Lewis, assigned her a new boss and other administrators relocated her to another office. An Education Department investigation found O'Neal's allegations about financial mismanagement were unsubstantiated.

"To the extent plaintiff has attempted to allege or prove some sort of conspiracy, I reject the proffer out of hand as being without merit, " Bateman wrote in his 16-page ruling.

O'Neal's lawyer, Marie A. Mattox, said she would appeal.

O'Neal's case touches on the crown jewel of FAMU's success under Humphries: its ability to recruit top-notch black students with lucrative scholarships that often included internships with Fortune 500 companies. Humphries appointed O'Neal, a St. Petersburg native, to head the Life Gets Better scholarship program in 1996.

At her bench trial, he testified she was a key reason for its success, working effectively with both brainy students and corporate benefactors. After Humphries stepped down in December 2001, the program floundered and never recovered.

Life Gets Better "brought a great deal of positive comments about FAMU, " Humphries said in a deposition. "And Dedra is largely responsible for those things while I was there."

O'Neal said the changes came because she began raising questions about what she saw as financial improprieties. But one administrator wrote in a May 2003 memo, "The decision made by the top administration must be carried out whether Ms. Azonobi agrees with it or not."

FAMU fired O'Neal a few months later. She filed suit in June 2004.

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.