WVU scoreboard deals questioned in Raese lawsuit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia University's plans to acquire a free video scoreboard for the Coliseum several years ago ended up costing WVU $5 million, according to a lawsuit filed by West Virginia Radio Corp. last week.In 2007, Panasonic offered to donate a scoreboard for the Coliseum, provided the WVU Foundation, the university's nonprofit fundraising arm, bought a scoreboard from the company for Milan Puskar Stadium. But the Foundation never raised the money for the football stadium, leaving the university's athletic department to pick up the $5 million tab, according to documents released as part of the lawsuit.Former WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong and other athletic department higher-ups repeatedly raised questions about the scoreboards, saying the university never solicited bids for the second scoreboard and possibly violated WVU purchasing rules."My concern that WVU is not following proper purchasing procedures regarding the scoreboards continues," Pastilong wrote to his bosses in 2008. "This project has gone from one free board to buying two boards for $5 million, and now providing Panasonic the best advertising spot on the boards for free."Pastilong's warnings "fell on deaf ears," according to West Virginia Radio's lawsuit. The scoreboards were purchased and installed in 2009.The scoreboard details were included in a wide-ranging lawsuit filed against WVU and its Foundation by West Virginia Radio Corp., which is owned by Morgantown businessman John Raese. The company has asked a judge to block WVU from awarding a hotly contested media rights contract to competitors IMG College and West Virginia Media Holdings.The lawsuit alleges that WVU officials have improperly awarded a number of contracts, including the scoreboard purchase."The scoreboard issue, is to me, very problematic," said Bob Gwynne, a Raese lawyer. "They've given out all this business without competitive bidding." West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also is reviewing WVU's scoreboard deal with Panasonic. He's expected to issue a report on the transaction later this summer.WVU Foundation officials would not comment on the scoreboard allegations. "The WVU Foundation does not comment on pending litigation," said Bill Nevin, the organization's spokesman. "The matter of the scoreboards is being reviewed by the attorney general's office, and it would be inappropriate to comment until that review is complete."In 2004, WVU started looking into replacing the video scoreboard at the Coliseum, which hosts men's and women's basketball games.Three years later, the university hired a consulting firm, Ellerbe Becket, to help with plans to purchase a new scoreboard.
A dozen companies expressed interest in selling a scoreboard to WVU, and the consultant started to draw up a request for bids.In May 2007, Panasonic sales representative Richard Ballard, who lives in Georgia, contacted WVU athletic officials and inquired about the scoreboard contract, according to an email included in last week's lawsuit.Ballard's brother, Ralph, is a longtime friend and business partner of former WVU Board of Governors Chairman Drew Payne. Ralph Ballard and Payne also were shareholders in West Virginia Media. The WVU Foundation invested $7 million in West Virginia Media between 2002 and 2007, according to the lawsuit.
In August 2007, Payne gave a behind-the-scenes push to Panasonic's pitch, the lawsuit alleges.Later that year, Panasonic offered to give WVU a free scoreboard for the Coliseum if the WVU Foundation bought a separate scoreboard for the football stadium, according to an email attached to the lawsuit.In March 2008, the Foundation signed a binding agreement with Panasonic, promising to pay $5 million for the football stadium scoreboard. The Foundation never solicited bids. Meanwhile, WVU had quietly agreed to "utilize its resources" if the Foundation couldn't raise the $5 million, according to a Feb. 15, 2008, letter cited in the lawsuit.Soon after, Pastilong and others started questioning what West Virginia Radio calls an "unlawful quid pro quo."In April 2008, associate athletic director Russell Sharp wrote to WVU Finance Director Narvel Weese: "This project began with a free board and has turned into a $5 million expense. Ed [Pastilong] is still concerned that others did not have the same opportunities Panasonic did."A month later, Pastilong sent a memo to Weese, saying, "Panasonic's name will be on state property, at the two most visible locations on campus, for free."
After the WVU Foundation failed to raise the $5 million, the university and its athletic department agreed to pay the Foundation for its scoreboard expense. The payments will continue through next year, according to the lawsuit.Ralph and Richard Ballard could not be reached for comment. WVU has said it would not comment on West Virginia Radio's lawsuit.The company alleges that WVU Foundation's agreement with Panasonic later led to purchases of Panasonic scoreboards and equipment for the men's basketball practice facility and the Milan Puskar Center.Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.
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