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Retired Junior Achievement exec files defamation suit

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Jeff Miller, the retired CEO of Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, says Mayor Greg Ballard was about to hire him as a senior policy adviser, but Central Indiana Community Foundation President Brian Payne scuttled the job by spreading rumors that Miller had misappropriated money at JA.

Ballard’s chief of staff, however, said Friday morning that Miller was never seriously considered for a position.

Miller’s allegation is part of a defamation lawsuit that he filed Wednesday against Junior Achievement as well as current JA CEO Jennifer Burk, CICF and Payne. The suit, filed in Marion Superior Court, also claims tortious interference with a business or contractual relationship, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

"These unfounded and untrue statements cost Mr. Miller a job opportunity as well as caused great damage to his reputation," the lawsuit states. Miller's attorney, Kevin Betz, would not comment further on the case. He said he didn't know the details about Miller's intended role with the city.

Payne did not return a phone call seeking comment. Burk said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

Junior Achievement of Central Indiana has six staff members and a budget of less than $2 million. The organization teaches children about running businesses and personal finance. The lessons often culiminate in field trips to JA's BizTown and Finance Park simulators inside the headquarters at 7435 N. Keystone Ave.

Miller, 52, retired from Junior Achievement on Dec. 31, 2008 after 15 years leading the organization. His dispute stems from an audit that CICF is conducting to determine how the organization spent roughly $750,000 of a $2 million grant.

The money, pledged by the Glick Fund of CICF, was intended to support construction of a $4 million culinary school adjoining the Junior Achievement building. Although he retired, Miller continued to work in 2009 for the Experiential Learning and Entrepreneurship Foundation, a separate organization that supports Junior Achievment. His role was to oversee construction of the culinary school, which is to be leased to Ivy Tech Community College.

Last November, CICF notified Junior Achievement that it was stopping payment on the grant until it could complete an audit of the money disbursed so far. CICF has not publicly announced its audit findings. Payne said recently that he's awaiting a final report.

"Even though Mr. Miller had provided valid and accurate construction invoices for all monies disbursed by the CICF/Glick Fund for the culinary school construction project, Ms. Burk and Mr. Payne claimed that Mr. Miller somehow misappropriated the funds," Miller's lawsuit states.

Miller's suit alleges that Burk made the same statement about misappropriated money to the Helping Fund, a charitable trust run by ex-Conseco Inc. executive Rollin Dick. The Helping Fund subsequently cut off its contribution to the culinary school project. The suit also claims that during a Junior Achievement executive committee meeting on Oct. 22, Burk said Miller had been "very dishonest" about funds she believed should be available to the organization. The suit quotes Burk telling a former Junior Achievement executive that "Jeff Miller's house of cards is about to fall down."

According to the lawsuit, Miller was in discussions early this year with Ballard staffers Michael Huber and Chief of Staff Chris Cotterill about a senior policy adviser position. Miller claims he and Cotterill had agreed upon a job description, title and salary. An announcement was scheduled for the end of February.

Reached Friday morning, Cotterill said he had an informal discussion with Miller over dinner about how he, as a former Junior Achievement leader, could use his business contacts to help the city with its various priorities.

Cotterill said it was not unlike countless other talks he has with potential volunteers, consultants or staff members.

“The notion we had something lined up is 100 percent inaccurate,” he said. “And I’m annoyed to have been brought into it.”

The lawsuit claims Cotterill withdrew an offer based on Payne's statements.  "Mr. Payne informed Mr. Cotterill that concerns had arisen regarding Mr. Miller and the way CICF/Glick grant funds were inappropriately moved around at [Junior Achievement of Central Indiana] and/or [Experiential Learning and Entrepreneurship Foundation]."

Cotterill said he did have a brief, off-hand talk with Payne about Junior Achievement and its financial trouble, but he doesn’t remember details. He said it’s not the reason he decided not to talk further with Miller about a job in Ballard’s administration.

The reason Miller lost his opportunity is that he discussed it with other people before it became formal, Cotterill said.

“You can’t say you’re going to work in the mayor’s office. We talk to people all the time.”

Also Thursday, Miller's wife, Cynthia Miller, filed a suit against Junior Achievement over non-payment of a consulting contract. Under the contract, which Jeff Miller extended on July 1, 2008, Cynthia Miller was to receive $41,343.84 through June 2009. The contract, which reflected a 5-percent pay increase, was for Cindy Miller to "take on the lead role with the Best and Brightest event."

Cynthia Miller, also represented by Betz, claims she fulfilled all the obligations of the contract, but has not received a full monthly payment since April of 2009.


 

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