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Students navigate LSU's campus near the Student Union the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in Baton Rouge, La.

LSU reneged on promises – made to avoid negative publicity – that changed the terms under which four highly paid IT advisers worked, rather than fire them for not following a law the university officials had failed to mention to them, according to a Baton Rouge lawyer.

But LSU officials changed their minds after the issue became public. All four lost their jobs and now the university wants two of the four to repay moving expenses of about $7,500 each.

Lawyer Larry Bankston blames LSU for not putting any system in place to ensure compliance with a 2013 state law requiring unclassified state employees earning more than $100,000 per year to register their vehicles in the state and get a Louisiana driver’s license. The existence of the law seems to have come as much of a surprise to LSU officials as it did to the employees who were informed of their noncompliance in February by internal audit.

In hopes of keeping the whole affair quiet, the four were offered continued employment and were promised that LSU wouldn’t seek reimbursement for moving expenses.

Andrea Ballinger, chief technology officer, who was making $268,000 per year; Matthew Helm, assistant vice-president in information technology services, $202,085 per year; Susan Flanagin, director in information technology services, $149,000 annually; and Thomas Glenn, director of information technology services, $144,200 annually; were forced out of their jobs on March 20 after the audit, which had been circulated to only seven top LSU officials on Feb. 6, became public.

The employees lived in condos at Perkins Rowe and paid state taxes in Louisiana, Bankston told The Advocate Tuesday. But their families and homes remained in Illinois.

Ballinger, Flanagin and Helm – Bankston’s clients – would have refused the LSU job offer had they known about the Louisiana law, which required all the vehicles they own to be registered in this state, he said. That would include the vehicles their families continued to use at their homes in Illinois.

When asked to address the specific points raised by Bankston, LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard emailed a statement: “There is a state law that all employees are required to be in compliance with, and these employees were given ample opportunity to comply and chose resignation or termination instead. This issue has nothing to do with LSU’s IT governance or the state of LSU’s IT systems.”

The measure six years ago that ensnared the foursome was sponsored by then Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite. The year before some lawmakers were angered by the news that one of then-Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's top aides, Stafford Palmieri, was driving a car with New York license plates. She said the car belonged to her father. During Jindal's term critics complained about what they called an influx of aides from other states.

Bankston contended LSU, in order to avoid bad publicity, discretely offered in February to switch the employment particulars and allow the four employees to work under a contract, called Work As Earned, or WAE, if they agreed to resigned by March 31. Basically, they would begin April 1 under the WAE contract, earning the same amount on hourly basis. Dan Layzell, LSU chief financial officer, went as far to ensure the two employees who had finished two full years at the university that LSU would not go after any reimbursement of Relocation Incentives.

On Feb. 22, Layzell acknowledged the senior staff had failed to implement the requirements of the statute. Ballinger even drove her car back to Illinois.

Layzell then on March 12 notified that employees that each was resigning while in good standing due to an inability to comply with a state law.

After news leaked of the accommodation, Layzell on March 16 advised Ballinger that the WAE deal was rescinded because of media attention, according to Bankston. The others were informed on March 18 and on March 20 the employees were sent home. LSU demanded they resign immediately.

“I tried to work something out with them, but couldn’t,” Bankston said Tuesday. He is preparing a lawsuit against LSU.

When Bankston went to LSU asking that the university honor the agreement, LSU Assistant General Counsel Carlton Jones III responded April 1: “While I appreciate the arguments that the employees were unaware of the statutory requirement, and the arguments that they were not informed, the result under the clear language of the statute remains the same.” He noted that WAE contracts were as-needed employment, which were withdrawn by LSU, but even if they weren’t the contract doesn’t guarantee any particular number of hours of work.

“LSU must also collect the relocation expenses from Mr. Helm and Ms. Flanagin. Each of them signed a contract agreeing to reimburse LSU for a portion of relocation expenses if they did not remain for a two-year period,” Jones wrote.

Bankston responded to Jones with an April 11 letter detailing what happened from his client's perspectives. “This entire situation was a total failure by the senior leadership of LSU. This failure of LSU is further recognized in the internal audit conducted as a result of this situation and was acknowledged by LSU in its response to the audit,” Bankston wrote.

Bankston suspects that LSU hierarchy wanted to get rid of the Illinois IT specialists because of they criticized the university's reliance on an IBM mainframe that is no longer supported by IBM and must be repaired with parts found on eBay. It uses the outdated programming language of COBOL. The 43-year-old computer system handles LSU’s tuition, payrolls, student services and other critical functions.

“The current IBM mainframe was placing the university at a high risk of collapse,” Bankston wrote Jones.

Ballinger in early 2019 presented four courses of action with detailed costs and the LSU administrators chose the cheapest one, which would cost about $5.1 million. Bankston said he thinks Ballinger and her team were telling LSU leaders something they didn’t want to hear.

LSU spokesman Ballard said in an email: “Regarding the mainframe system, LSU has been discussing a solution for years, but cost is a major factor for replacing the system, and the university has had to find ways to continue with the current system.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.