A former Tarrant County College administrator filed a lawsuit Feb. 7 against the district over how Chancellor Eugene Giovannini allegedly retaliated against her for disciplining an employee with whom the higher education leader was having an affair, according to court documents.
Kristen Bennett, the former executive vice president of advancement who led the TCC Foundation, submitted the lawsuit in federal court in Dallas. She is seeking monetary damages for her $207,000 salary, mental anguish, deprivation of procedural due process and her attorney’s fees.
After months of one-on-one meetings with Giovannini, Bennett feared losing her job and professional reputation because of the chancellor’s anger, according to the lawsuit. Because of the emotional toll of her situation, Bennett decided to resign from a job she loved.
“Having realized that she was trapped in the web of the relationship between Giovannini and the female employee in question and seeing utterly no way to get out of that trap without being fired by Giovannini (with the accompanying damage to her professional career), she thought it best to resign,” the lawsuit reads.
Holding Giovannini accountable for his actions is a top priority, Bennett’s attorney, Frank Hill, told the Fort Worth Report.
“To me, the most important thing is that her employer is the government, and if the government is free to ignore constitutional due process requirements and to ignore First Amendment speech rights, then we’re all in a hell of a lot of trouble,” Hill said.
Tarrant County College said it would not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters.
Bennett supervised the employee, who was not named in the lawsuit. Bennett reprimanded the employee several times for her workplace behavior, including verbal disputes with coworkers and sending an inappropriate email to a team member, according to the lawsuit.
TCC board of trustees meeting
The TCC board of trustees will meet in closed session Feb. 10 to discuss a complaint filed against Giovannini.
Until this point, Bennett had a good working relationship with the employee. She did not know the employee had an inappropriate relationship with Giovannini, according to the lawsuit.
In August, Giovannini called Bennett to his office. The chancellor had previously supported Bennett, who he had handpicked to lead the TCC Foundation. But, at this meeting, Giovannini’s attitude changed, according to the lawsuit.
On Aug. 30, the chancellor once again called Bennett to his office where he told her he did not plan to renew her contract, which ended the next day.
“Giovannini told Dr. Bennett that he had ‘issues’ with Dr. Bennett, although he did not say what they were; rather, he said he was going to place her on an Executive Development Plan, similar to what is commonly known in the district as a ‘PIP’ or personal improvement plan,” ther lawsuit states.
On Aug. 31, Bennett and Giovannini met for a third time in his office. The chancellor allegedly told Bennett to not send him any emails or written correspondence.
“Giovannini told her during that meeting that he did not want ‘any paper trail’; the result, of course, was that the HR department was not perceptibly involved,” the lawsuit said.
Every few weeks, Bennett and Giovannini would meet to go over her progress on her improvement plan, according to the lawsuit.
Giovannini’s demeanor worsened toward Bennett after another incident with the employee, according to the document. Bennett reached out to TCC’s human resources department to see how to deal with the employee after she sent an inappropriate email to a coworker.
“Dr. Bennett and Giovannini met again on September 22, 2021, in his office and without others present. Giovannini claimed to have several complaints about her ‘progress’ although he did not tell her what they were, Giovannini was visibly angry,” the lawsuit said.
Over a few months, one of TCC’s top in-house lawyers met with Bennett, according to the lawsuit. They discussed the alleged affair between one of Bennett’s employees and the chancellor, whether the employee was mentally fit for work and how Giovannini should have never put Bennett on a personal improvement plan without informing HR.
“In this meeting (in November), the District’s Associate Internal General Counsel told Dr. Bennett that ‘you don’t deserve this and that you have been a rock star your entire career; heck you even turned around (another) employee,’” the lawsuit said.
The lawyer also told Bennett that rumors of Giovannini’s inappropriate relationship had reached the board of trustees, according to the lawsuit. One trustee even met with the chancellor to stop meeting with the employee.
“At that point, the District’s Associate Internal General Counsel stated that the employee must be ‘[expletive] crazy’ and that ‘the Chancellor was so stupid. Why couldn’t he have had an affair with someone more appropriate and outside of Fort Worth?,’” the lawsuit states.
In November, Bennett took the lawyer’s advice and visited HR to start the fit for duty inquiry. All of Bennett’s employees and a student wrote in support of HR examining whether the employee was fit to work.
After informing people of her resignation, which she later rescinded, TCC Foundation board member Conrad Heede met with Bennett who told the former TCC trustee about everything that had happened between her and the chancellor, according to the suit.
Heede, who did not respond to a Report request to comment, told TCC board President Teresa Ayala and trustee Ken Barr about Bennett’s situation. Heede told Bennett in December that Ayala and Barr would help Bennett, according to the lawsuit.
“However, this never happened and instead, on Dec. 9, Dr. Bennett was told by the Director of HR that she was being put on paid leave,” the lawsuit said.
Ayala and Barr also did not respond to Report requests to comment.
When TCC’s HR director told Bennett she would be placed on administrative leave, the director said Bennett had done nothing wrong and the district had launched an independent third-party investigation into her grievance. Another separate independent investigation into the employee who has had a relationship with the chancellor also is ongoing, according to the lawsuit.
Since officially leaving her job on Jan. 31, the lawsuit said, “Dr. Bennett has yet to be allowed to (get) her pictures, books, degrees, and personal items from her desk at TCC.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.