A Cook County jury has awarded a former Chicago State University employee $2.5 million in damages and back pay after deciding he was fired in retaliation for reporting alleged misconduct by the university president and other top officials, an amount that a judge could further increase at a hearing next month.
It may be the first verdict stemming from a whistleblower claim filed under the state’s ethics act, a 2003 law that laid out guidelines for behavior by state employees, according to the Attorney General’s office. That law included whistleblower protection for employees who disclose activities they believe violate the ethics act.
“We’re not aware of another judgment like this,” said Attorney General Spokeswoman Natalie Bauer.
The lawsuit by former Chicago State senior legal counsel James Crowley alleged that he was fired in February 2010 after he refused to withhold documents about university President Wayne Watson’s employment that were requested by a faculty member under the state’s public records law. Crowley also claimed that he was retaliated against after reporting questionable contracts to the Attorney General’s office.
A university attorney argued in court that Crowley was fired for misusing university resources, including reserved parking spaces, using preferential treatment in awarding a scholarship to a student, and purchasing an airline ticket and hotel room for a student to attend a conference.
But a jury last week agreed with Crowley’s version of events and awarded him $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 in back pay from the last four years. It also ordered that he be reinstated to his job. Cook County Circuit Court Judge James McCarthy is scheduled to rule March 11 whether to double the amount of back pay and require the university to pay interest, both of which are included as remedies under the ethics law. McCarthy also is expected to decide whether Chicago State should pay Crowley’s attorneys’ fees.
Crowley’s lawsuit was against the university, a public institution with 5,700 students on the city’s South Side; its president, Wayne Watson; and the seven trustees who were on the university board in 2010. The trial, which included testimony from Watson, lasted two weeks. A 14-member jury deliberated for less than an hour before delivering the verdict Feb. 18.
“I’m very grateful to be free of the false allegations made against me by the Watson administration, and that have negatively affected my career for the past four years. Hopefully, this prevents them from treating other employees as badly as they’ve treated me,” Crowley wrote in a statement to the Tribune. “I also hope my case encourages not only employees of Chicago State, but all state employees, to report any wrongdoing to the proper state agency and know that they are protected.”
Chicago State University said it will appeal. The university’s insurance policy will cover the damages, said Chicago State spokesman Thomas Wogan.
“The University stands behind our decision to defend this case in court. While we disagree with the decision of the jury, we fully respect the judicial process and we will pursue an appeal to their decision,” Wogan said in a statement.
Bauer said the attorney general’s office was “not aware of another verdict like this under the whistleblower protection provision of the ethics act.”
The State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, enacted in 2003 by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, included a series of ethics overhauls designed to prevent and root out wrongdoing by public officials across the state. It is the reason why state employees are now required to do annual ethics training, and why there is a state executive inspector general charged with investigating alleged corruption.
The law also established both civil and criminal penalties for those who violate the ethics act, and included whistleblower protections to protect state workers who report misconduct.
“The goal of the whole system was to encourage people to speak out when they see something wrong,” said David Morrison, a policy adviser with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, who helped draft the legislation. “If they suffer a harm when they are doing their job and raise a flag, they should be protected against retaliation.”
Morrison said the jury’s decision to award more than $2 million in punitive damages sends a message that the law intended.
“There is supposed to be a heavy hammer to discourage people from retaliating,” Morrison said. “That is part of the cost of corruption that we will have to tally up. It is ultimately the taxpayers who lose, but it is the public official who should bear the fault for that. If they had run a clean ship, that would not have happened. It is up to the administration to set the right tone.”
Crowley, 47, a graduate of the DePaul University College of Law, began working at Chicago State in 2000. In August 2009, when Crowley’s duties included answering requests for public records, he disagreed with Watson about how to respond to requests for information about Watson’s employment and the presidential residence. Watson had recently been appointed Chicago State’s president, but there was disagreement about whether he had begun to take over presidential responsibilities at that time.
Watson’s start date was a contentious issue because it determined whether he was eligible for his pension based on his years as chancellor at City Colleges of Chicago. If he assumed the presidency on Aug. 1 as originally outlined in his contract, he would have been ineligible because the law requires 60 days between state jobs. He later changed his start date to Oct. 1.
According to the lawsuit, in a meeting to discuss what documents to provide in response to the requests, Watson put his hand on Crowley’s wrist and said to him: “If you read this my way, you are my friend; If you read it the other way, you are my enemy.”
Crowley reported to the attorney general’s office that he had been threatened. He also told the office about contracts that he thought had been improperly bid and executed. On Feb. 19, 2010, Crowley was fired.
“You have a right if you are a government employee to say to someone, ‘I think you need to investigate this,’” Crowley’s attorney, Anthony Pinelli, said during the trial.
The Chicago State’s attorney, Tiffany Ferguson, said during opening arguments that the university fired Crowley “for the right reasons,” which included preferential treatment for himself and a student who was a friend. The university claimed Crowley improperly used a university bank account to pay for his reserved on-campus parking space; diverted scholarship money to pay for the student’s textbooks, and used university funds to pay for a plane ticket to Hawaii for the same student to attend a conference — a trip that was ultimately canceled.
Crowley’s attorney said his client made a mistake by not having someone else sign off on the parking expense, but that he did nothing improper related to the travel or textbooks, saying they were “trumped up charges to get (Crowley) out the door.”
Ferguson said Crowley’s firing could not have been retaliatory because Watson and others did not know that he had met with the attorney general’s office. She argued Crowley was fired for “misappropriating university funds for purposes of preferential treatment. That’s it,” she said.
The university also filed a complaint against Crowley with the state’s Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission, which declined to pursue the case.
Still, Crowley said that complaint, which he is required to acknowledge on job applications, has prevented him from securing employment. He has had one 9-month temporary contract job in the four years since he was terminated from Chicago State.
Pinelli, Crowley’s attorney, called the judgment a “very significant but completely lawful amount.” The jury had discretion in deciding how much to award. Crowley’s complaint had asked for “an amount of damages sufficient to prevent further violations of the act,” in excess of $50,000.
“A small amount wouldn’t get their attention,” Pinelli said. “They needed to do something large enough. My conversation with the jurors afterward said it was to send a message.”