GRAND FORKS - The Grand Forks United Way and agency president and CEO Pat Berger are parting ways after more than 24 years, a move her attorney calls a “shameful” result of criticism by the Grand Forks Herald.
According to a letter dated Jan. 14 from Berger’s attorney, David Thompson, to Beth Alvine, an attorney with Vogel Law Firm, which is representing the United Way, Berger was placed on “administrative leave” with pay on Dec. 21.
In a letter from Alvine to Thompson on Jan. 21, the United Way outlined performance issues as the reason for firing Berger, including a “pattern of unprofessional behavior over the past 15 months,” financial concerns and not meeting fundraising goals.
Thompson said the United Way is making an after-the-fact attempt to generate “phony” performance issues.
Thompson said a column by Herald Publisher Korrie Wenzel triggered Berger’s firing.
In a Jan. 24 letter from Thompson, he states that no documentation ever occured and Berger was never disciplined or informed of alleged performance problems.
“Understand this, this had everything to do with Pat’s comments. This is not about Pat’s performance. United Way is saying it’s performance issues,” Thompson said. “There weren’t really, nothing of anything significance. What happened here is very clear.”
In late November, Berger, responding to news that Grand Forks television station WDAZ was merging with WDAY in Fargo, asked on Facebook: "So Fargo is the only thing of interest in ND?"
"Wow. I guess they don't really care about GF or the northern valley. ... Feel like soon we will only have a Fargo Forum as our 'local' newspaper, too!"
Responding to criticism of the merger and Berger’s online comment, Wenzel defended Forum Communications Co., which also owns the Herald. Wenzel said the media company has made a considerable commitment to Grand Forks and the Red River Valley over the years, and cited contributions by the company to the United Way.
“Oh, for heaven's sake,” Wenzel wrote in regards to Berger’s comments. “The contributions of this company to the Grand Forks United Way — literally thousands upon thousands of dollars each year in cash and nearly the same again in free advertising — have been great, portraying in just one way much how this company cares about Grand Forks and the northern valley.”
Nikki Jackman, head of the board of directors of United Way, then wrote a letter to the editor, published Dec. 8, apologizing on behalf of the entire board for Berger’s comments.
On Monday, Jackman said the board doesn't comment on employee issues, and that Berger is on leave. Phyllis Johnson, board vice chair, said Berger is retired.
Thompson said Wenzel’s column was unfair.
“Pat was one of (71) who commented on the post,” Thompson said. “Korrie singled out Pat Berger ... for making a legitimate comment on what reflected the pervasive point of view of the community.”
Berger had informed the board she planned to retire at the end of June or the beginning of July at its November meeting.
“Pat Berger is devastated,” Thompson said. “She’s been a loyal, good employee.”
Thompson said on Dec. 21 that Berger was “unceremoniously escorted out of her office” after having about five minutes to collect her things.
In another letter from Thompson to Alvine dated Jan. 24, Thompson said United Way has scheduled Berger’s termination for Feb. 12, but stopped paying her Jan. 21.
According to the Jan. 14 letter from Thompson, Jackman and 2018 United Way Campaign Chair Tony Telken entered Berger’s office at United Way on Dec. 7. The letter said Jackman “berated” Berger for her Facebook comments and “ordered Patricia Berger to remain silent about the comments, further directing Ms. Berger to neither speak nor write about the two comments which had been highlighted by Wenzel in his Herald editorial.”
Jackman did not provide further comment on Berger’s status with the agency.
Following the publication of Jackman’s letter to the editor, no more was said to Berger by Jackman or anyone one else from the board of the United Way until Dec. 21, according to Thompson’s letter. On that date, he wrote, Jackman told Berger she was “under investigation” and suspended.
“Jackman refused to provide Patricia Berger with any reason for the investigation into her,” Thompson wrote in the letter.
According to Thompson’s letter, Berger said no written documentation of any of the incidents of “unprofessional” behavior was presented to her or placed in her personnel file prior to her departure on Dec. 21.
Berger called the claim of financial problems in the letter dated Jan. 21 from Alvine inaccurate, according to Thompson’s letter.
She also said she never received written criticism from the board about her fundraising performance and that fundraising campaign operations were the principal responsibility of United Way Vice President of Resource Development Shaun Havis, “who remains at United Way today,” she added.
Berger, through Thompson, proposed a resolution in the last week of December 2018, but the board of United Way rejected it.
Berger had proposed that she retire and be awarded severance pay equal to the salary amount she would have received had she been able to continue working through June of 2019. The board countered with a proposal to accept Berger’s resignation and pay her a sum equal to one month’s salary plus two weeks’ vacation. Berger rejected this offer.
According to the United Way’s federal 990 tax filing from 2016, Berger’s salary was $70,880.
In an interview with the High Plains Reader, a weekly paper published in Fargo, Berger said, “I devoted most of my adult career to this organization and this community. I don’t want to see it fail. I don’t want to hurt what it’s doing. I think right now they are run by a rogue board and that to me is incomprehensible. I can’t believe this is how you treat people.”