ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler spent more than an hour last week with the board of trustees' lawyer, discussing a complaint that he was showing favoritism to a friend who works at the college.
St. Petersburg attorney Joseph H. Lang said Monday that two people complained 10 days ago "that there was a perception on the St. Pete campus that a female staff member was receiving favorable treatment, and maybe more than that was involved."
Lang declined to identify the people who complained, saying he had promised them anonymity.
The staffer in question is Violetta Sweet, who oversees student exchanges as director of the international program. Sweet had worked in nonsupervisory positions in the college's financial aid and accounts payable offices before leaving several years ago. She was rehired in December to her current $60,000-a-year post. She supervises one assistant and reports to university provost Karen White.
Lang said he and longtime trustee Richard Johnston "asked Carl to come up with a strategy or plan to alleviate or negate this perception, to whatever extent that it exists, that he played favorites with this girl."
Kuttler denied any favoritism, "but acknowledged where people could perceive it," Lang said.
Sweet, 33, immigrated from Kazakhstan about 10 years ago and met Kuttler when mutual friends who knew of his avid interest in Russia asked him to help her.
"She was in dire need. I get about 100 cases a year like this," Kuttler said. "We raised scholarship funds for her."
The two remained friends, occasionally visiting each other's homes, along with their spouses, both Kuttler and Sweet said.
Lang said Kuttler, 68, gave Sweet away when she married. "Carl described himself as like her godfather or surrogate father," Lang said.
Before Sweet recently filed for divorce, Kuttler advised her to seek counseling, Lang said.
The college was in a lurch when it hired Sweet to her current position in the international program, Kuttler said.
Her predecessor had left suddenly, just before several college officials and students planned to travel to Russia on a major exchange trip. Sweet's ability to speak Russian came in particularly handy as a translator, he said, when one of the students needed medical attention.
Sweet has a bachelor's degree from Kazakhstan and has studied accounting at the University of South Florida, she and Kuttler said.
She attributed any perceptions of favoritism to people not liking immigrants. "I think there is just jealousy going on and they need to stop immigrants," she said Monday. "But we are going through with this, and we are going to do well."
Lang and Johnston both said that, after the meeting, they were satisfied with Kuttler's explanation.