The first major casualty of the scathing state audit of Erie Community College is Kristin Klein Wheaton, the $116,000-plus vice president for legal affairs at the college who has served as embattled President Jack Quinn’s chief advisor and protector since she was hired in 201l by Quinn to head the ECC legal department, a role that mushroomed into pretty much running the college for Quinn, especially when he was busy with outside activities.
Wheaton announced at the end of last week’s ECC board meeting that she was leaving to become a partner in a local law firm, an exit apparently encouraged by County Executive Mark Poloncarz who will shortly announce his recommendations to fix the college after the highly critical audit by State Comptroller Tom DiNpoli.
We have learned that the Poloncarz stamp is on the departure of Wheaton as she visited County Attorney Mike Siragusa in an effort to win support to stay in her position despite the negative audit, an effort that clearly was not successful given her resignation. Siragusa would only confirm that he spoke to Wheaton and would not provide any comment on the nature of the conversation. But she resigned shortly after that meeting.
Wheaton had grown in power after her appointment by
Quinn, assembling a more than $500,000 legal department that one could argue was made necessary by the many lawsuits filed against ECC and Wheaton during the course of her employment by many staffers, including some high ranking administrators.
County Executive Poloncarz, who has named three new members to the ECC board of trustees, is expected to announce his plans shortly to address the college’s many problems identified by state auditors but he was in Albany at a conference this week and could not be reached for comment on his plan or Wheaton’s sudden departure.
Several sources believe one of the remedies in the Poloncarz plan will be to return the ECC legal services work to the county attorney and disband the half-million dollar Wheaton legal empire that was operating pretty much with Quinn’s blessing and barely a second look from the board of trustees which was criticized in the state audit for being out of touch with what was going on right under their noses without any public accountability or oversight, things like creating high-paying jobs, handing out raises and bonuses to senior staff, and questionable compensation payments to two senior executives totaling $77,000.
We have previously reported that Wheaton fought tooth-and-nail with state auditors during the long audit, trying desperately to protect Quinn and the senior staff who received unauthorized raises and she even went so far as to refuse to provide state auditors with the phone numbers of the members of the board of trustees, a fact noted in the final state audit.
Wheaton’s resignation came on the morning that county lawmakers had invited Quinn and his team to come to the legislature to discuss the audit, but what had been expected to be a tough interrogation of Quinn about the deficiencies identified by DiNapoli’s review lasted only about 15 minutes, apparently defused by Wheaton’s sudden resignation and the sense that some lawmakers were not anxious to pile on, despite the college’s ongoing crisis and lack of transparency.
“I think we’re going to let the dust settle a little bit,” said Community Enrichment Committee Chairman Kevin Hardwick who had scheduled the meeting. “Let’s see what the college comes up with in response to the audit, and I hope to get back to working with all the stakeholders to see what we can do to help. We were able to get people working together to settle labor contracts last fall, and I hope we can work together again in everybody’s best interests.”