RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has filed a $5 million suit against Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) President, Michael Rao, and three others, on the grounds of a personal dispute in which a former VCU employee sent the former governor crude, “threatening” messages and was not fired by the school administration.
The defendants named in court documents are VCU President Michael Rao, VCU Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos, Assistant Attorney General and VCU Associate University Counsel Jacob Belue and former VCU employee James “Jim” Burke.
Wilder, 91, filed the lawsuit on Friday, July 15 as an employee of the school named after him, the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
The suit claimed that Wilder School employee Burke sent a group text message to the former governor and another employee of the school on Sunday, Jan. 30 after the election of the Republican nominee, now Gov. Glenn Youngkin, which Wilder described in court documents as “not only harassment but also threatening,” and, “part of a larger pattern of such behavior at VCU which is condoned by President Rao.”
“Wow, What a s*** show. It will be four years of disaster,” Burke wrote in the message. “I am so disappointed on anyone who thought he was a better choice. Pure stupidity. I am beyond disgusted and disappointed in anyone who could have missed the obvious. Welcome the Nazis. I have no respect for anyone who supported him.”
Although Wilder was elected as the first Black governor in the United States in 1989 while running as a Democrat in Virginia, court documents state that, in the 2021 election for Governor, Wilder made no endorsements of any candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, or the state legislature, and that candidate McAuliffe never asked for Wilder’s support while he was running.
The text message continued in court documents for several more sentences, saying, “TM [Terry McAuliffe] may not have been great. I get that. But this???? WTF. Is this what you wanted, Doug? I can’t believe you fell for it. You f**ked up badly. And now we will have to clean it up I am tired of cleaning up for people. I now have to tell scholars not to talk about what is real? Trust me, these jerks will come after me for teaching history. They will come after my Black colleagues for saying what is true. I will not capitulate to these people. Someone has to stand up. Will you stand with me?”
The next day, on Jan. 31, Burke sent a follow-up text message to Wilder, saying, “I owe you a huge apology, Gov. I am so frustrated but had no right to speak that way. I hope you will accept my sincere apology. I screwed up.”
Two days later, on Feb. 2, Burke sent a text to his supervisor, saying that he had reviewed his texts to Wilder, and “shuddered thinking” what he might read. But Burke, according to court documents, then continued on to say, “However, I am good with it. I rescind any apologies. I stand by what I said. I was right. I offered him apologies I should never have offered.”
Court documents state that, following the VCU employee code of conduct, Wilder sent the text messages he received from Burke to Dean Susan Gooden for the next steps two days after their receipt, on Feb. 1.
Gooden seemingly agreed with Wilder on the threatening tone of the messages, and court documents show that she filed an “Official Complaint of Fear, Harassment and Intimidation” through email to several parties, including Provost Sotiropoulos and University Counsel Belue on Feb. 9, just one day after she sent an “intent to terminate” letter to Burke by mail.
Dean Gooden then met with Belue and Sotiropoulos to inform them of the intent to terminate letter being sent, and in response, court documents stated that Sotiropoulos said, “You did what? How can we undo this?”
Documents alleged that Dean Gooden replied, saying that “anytime someone makes a threat such as Jim Burke did in working school of government, and doubles down on the threat as he did in his second text listed above, I view that as a credible threat that has to be managed properly.”
Over the next week, several back-and-forth correspondents were shared among all parties, including a request from Belue and Sotiropoulos to delay the termination of Burke. Court documents noted an official letter from Attorney General Jason Miyares to President Rao and Dean Gooden on May 31 saying that “the university was within its rights to terminate Dr. Burke,” and that under the current circumstances, he could not approve a settlement at the time.
On June 17, Wilder reportedly received an email from Gooden that was sent to her and Sotiropoulos by Belue, in which court documents stated there was communication by Belue and Burke’s attorney that Burke had resigned.
The documents end, stating that, “There is a pattern of racism, discrimination, and retaliation at VCU associated with Defendant Wilder’s tenure at VCU,” and continues, saying the evidence of which will be revealed as the trial goes on.
8News legal analyst Russ Stone said Tuesday that this suit is unique.
“It is filed pro se, which means Mr. Wilder, Governor Wilder has not retained an attorney to pursue this case,” he said. “There’s talk in the suit where he’s alleging that threats occurred. But when you read the statements that even he is saying, they don’t really sound threatening. They sound more like political criticism.”
Court documents included a Threat Assessment Team (TAT) letter that Dean Gooden had referenced in her February correspondents with the defendants. That letter reportedly stated that “the current information available does not seem to indicate any specific physical threats to individuals or groups of individuals.”
Yet, in addition to the aforementioned $5 million, Wilder is seeking attorney’s fees and costs against all defendants, a trial by jury, and “declaratory and injunctive relief, temporary and permanent, against all Defendants sued in their official capacity (and thus VCU itself).”
8News reached out to the defendants named in the suit, but was told that comments could not be provided on pending litigation.
“If a court allows something like this to go forward, there’s going to have to be some showing of damages, and I’m not sure how you actually quantify those kinds of damages,” Stone said. “There may be political motivations behind it. Mr. Wilder may genuinely feel that he has been harmed by this, and all I’m really saying is he’s going to have to justify that at some point. This filing isn’t going to be enough to do that.”
This is not the first time the former governor has sued VCU and the government school that bears his name. Back in 2018, a complaint filed in Richmond Circuit Court asserted that the dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, John Accordino, verbally assaulted and abused Angelica Bega, Wilder’s administrative assistant at the time, the previous November.
“Requesting a trial by jury is done in essentially every case. That’s what you ask for at the beginning,” Stone said. “You’re going to have to justify that you’ve been damaged to the tune of $5 million. In what they filed here, I don’t see where that is. But what happens next is after the defense’s responded, then, a court will be able to see both of those documents. I’m sure part of the defendants’ response will be, even if you take everything at face value, there’s no case here, and ask a judge to dismiss it.”