Heirs of the A&P supermarket fortune, whose parents established a foundation at Princeton University 43 years ago to train future diplomats, are accusing Princeton of misusing more than $100 million from the fund, which now has assets of nearly $600 million.
Lawyers for descendants of the late Charles and Marie Robertson filed an amended lawsuit Tuesday against the university in New Jersey Superior Court. The new suit said the plaintiffs had “discovered disturbing new evidence that Princeton has improperly and systematically diverted more than $100 million from the Robertson Foundation and has fraudulently concealed its wrongdoing.”
Princeton issued a statement yesterday accusing the Robertson family of making “unsubstantiated and misleading claims” and of trying to “litigate their case through the press,” rather than the courts.
In 1961, the Robertsons created the Robertson Foundation at Princeton by donating 700,000 shares of A&P stock, then valued at $35 million. Mr. Robertson was a 1926 alumnus of Princeton.
The lawsuit contends that the gift was made with the stipulation that Robertson Foundation money would only be used for a graduate program at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs to prepare students for federal jobs in international relations.
The suit was filed in July 2002. In that suit, the Robertson’s three children, William Robertson, a 1972 Princeton graduate, and his sisters, Katherine Ernst and Anne Meier, asserted that Princeton was not fulfilling the mission of the foundation nor the intent of the donors.
Mr. Robertson and Mrs. Ernst are family trustees of the Robertson Foundation, as is their cousin, Robert Halligan, who is now a plaintiff in the case.
The amended suit accuses Princeton of wrongly spending $100 million over the years to support various university programs outside the purview of the foundation’s mission. It says the original donors “created the foundation for the express purpose of strengthening the government of the United States by training men and women for government service,” particularly in foreign affairs.
Princeton and its Wilson School “have taken more than $260 million of the foundation’s funds since 1961, including more than $230 million since fiscal 1990, but they have done little to accomplish the foundation’s mission,” the revised complaint says.
The amended suit also says Princeton routinely disregards donors’ intentions. “Princeton has a pattern and practice of violating donors’ conditions and improperly spending restricted gifts in ways that benefit the university’s own general fund,” the brief states.
The plaintiffs cite a 2003 memo by a university employee who had audited accounts established for Princeton’s Office of Religious Life. The lawsuit quotes the memo as saying, “Funding allocations are not in alignment with their intended purpose, i.e. the donors’ wishes have been ignored; money intended for religious life has been knowingly withheld.”
But Princeton spokeswoman Patricia Allen said that accusation was “thoroughly investigated and determined to involve no wrongdoing.”
In addition to asking for punitive damages and Robertson family legal fees, the amended lawsuit asks that the court:
Modify the foundation’s certificate of incorporation and bylaws to end Princeton’s control. All foundation trustees would be appointed by the Robertson family.
Reverse the university’s “improper takeover of the Robertson Foundation’s investment portfolio,” which plaintiffs said was carried out last year despite unanimous opposition by family trustees.
Have Princeton reimburse the foundation — with interest — for all improper use of its funds.