Former head of humanities endowment accused of misspending _lowres

Michael Sartisky

The former longtime head of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities spent tens of thousands of dollars of the nonprofit’s money for “his personal use, benefit and enjoyment,” according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in New Orleans.

Michael Sartisky’s alleged misdeeds include using $85,243 of the endowment’s money on artwork he kept for himself, improperly spending $10,288 from his fringe benefit account and his official credit card, and taking more than 140 days more of paid time off than he was allowed.

“This conduct has substantially damaged the LEH, and though (the endowment) gave Sartisky ample time to resolve this matter amicably, Sartisky has failed to redress his misconduct,” the lawsuit states.

The suit was filed Friday by the endowment. It was assigned to U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman.

Sartisky was fired last year from his high-profile post and subsequently filed a breach-of-contract suit against his longtime employer, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. In his lawsuit, Sartisky claimed he was fired from his $246,000-a-year position after two staff members said he made them uncomfortable.

Sartisky had worked at the endowment since 1982. He was fired from his post as its executive director and president in February 2014.

His 2014 lawsuit claimed that a transition plan had been in place since 2013 that called for him to retain his title as the endowment’s president through late 2015. In return, he was to be paid about $246,000 a year, including benefits. After that, he was to serve as editor in chief of the organization’s Louisiana Cultural Vistas and KnowLA publications for two years, making about $123,000 annually, his lawsuit said.

Until his lawsuit, neither Sartisky nor the endowment’s board had provided much explanation for why he was let go. But Friday’s lawsuit provides a conflicting account from the one that Sartisky outlined last year.

Sartisky was fired amid allegations that he abused the endowment’s benefits and paid leave policies, the lawsuit says. The nonprofit hired a firm to perform a forensic audit of Sartisky’s spending, it says. Among various charges, the lawsuit says, the firm reported that Sartisky purchased 15 pieces of art in a seven-year span beginning in 2006. The cost: $120,508, of which $85,243 came from the nonprofit’s coffers.

Sartisky refused to turn over the art after the endowment demanded that he do so, the lawsuit says. The art was not publicly displayed in the nonprofit’s space, and Sartisky kept it for himself, the suit says.

The suit also claims that Sartisky improperly spent $10,288 in 2012 and 2013 and that he took more than 140 days off work for “professional development” in those years without the approval of the board’s chairman. He was allowed up to three months — 65 working days — “every other three years,” it says.

In fact, the 13-page lawsuit claims, Sartisky did not use the time off “for any type of professional development — such as writing or research of a professional article or other publication relating to the humanities, or attendance at a seminar, institute or course related to the humanities or administrative responsibilities.” He was ultimately paid for 142 days above what was allowed, according to the suit.

On Monday, Sartisky’s attorney, Michael Allweiss, dismissed the allegations against his client as retribution for Sartisky’s lawsuit, which is slated for a September jury trial.

“In my view, the suit is more of an act of vindictiveness or desperation than anything approaching sound reasoning or proper analysis,” Allweiss said.

Sartisky’s 2014 lawsuit painted a different picture of what led to the end of his tenure. It claimed that the endowment’s chairman, Michael Bernstein, called Sartisky in late 2013 and told him that his “behavior made two staff members uncomfortable.” His suit did not offer specifics about what behavior was involved or who the two employees were, and the allegations were not rehashed in the endowment’s suit.

Sartisky’s contract stipulated that he could be fired only for “misfeasance, malfeasance or moral turpitude,” and it laid out a grievance procedure for resolving complaints, according to his lawsuit.

Sartisky was suspended from his job the day after Bernstein’s phone call, his suit alleges. He has charged that the endowment had “engaged in several acts of spite and bad faith,” including not paying a $20,000 bonus that was owed to him and not covering premiums on his medical insurance. His suit, which was assigned to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, seeks damages of no less than $957,000, plus attorney’s fees.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.