Humanities Endowment director protests his firing _lowres

Michael Sartisky

After four months of near silence about the circumstances that led to his ouster as president of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Michael Sartisky has filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the New Orleans-based organization, alleging he was fired after two staff members said he made them feel uncomfortable.

Sartisky was fired as executive director and president of the LEH in February after more than three decades at the helm.

His 14-page lawsuit, filed May 16 in federal court in New Orleans, says his tenure was marked by success as the nonprofit became “a nationally known, highly respected and very successful organization.”

The lawsuit contends that a transition plan agreed upon in 2013 was to keep him in his role as president through October 2015, paying him about $246,000 a year, including benefits. After that, he was slated to serve as editor-in-chief of the endowment’s Louisiana Cultural Vistas and KnowLA publications for another two years and make about $123,000 annually.

That plan never came to pass. Sartisky was fired Feb. 11, though neither he nor the endowment’s board would provide much detail as to why.

The court filing sheds some light on that, alleging that the endowment’s chairman, Michael Bernstein, called Sartisky on Dec. 26 and told him that his “behavior made two staff members uncomfortable.” The lawsuit does not offer specifics about what behavior was involved or who the two employees were.

In the suit, Sartisky contends that his contract said he could be fired only for “misfeasance, malfeasance or moral turpitude” and laid out a grievance procedure for resolving complaints.

Sartisky was suspended from his job the day after Bernstein’s phone call, the lawsuit alleges. In January, it says, he was interviewed by an investigator hired by the endowment’s board but did not receive a written explanation of the charges or grievances lodged against him.

“At no time was Sartisky ever confronted with the identity of any individual who he was alleged to have made ‘uncomfortable,’ and at no time was he ever presented with evidence supporting such assertion,” the lawsuit states.

Sartisky’s termination became effective March 14.

The suit also contends that the endowment has “engaged in several acts of spite and bad faith,” including not paying a $20,000 bonus that was owed to Sartisky and not covering premiums on his medical insurance.

The suit, which was assigned to U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, seeks damages of no less than $957,000, plus attorney’s fees.

He is being represented by New Orleans lawyer Michael Allweiss.

Bernstein, who also is the provost at Tulane University, declined to address the lawsuit’s allegations Monday, saying that would occur “in due course.”

“I’m not going to comment on the pending litigation now,” he said.

The endowment, which is affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been hit by budget cuts in recent years. It reported almost $3 million in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in October 2012, according to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, but operated at a loss of about $17,000.

Those revenues were down from $3.3 million in 2011.

Three other high-ranking staff members were laid off in March. Bernstein at the time blamed the moves on fiscal belt-tightening.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on June 3, 2014 to reflect that the three other staff members were laid off, not fired, due to budget constraints.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.