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Chicago State plans to appeal $2.5M award to whistleblower

By Bethany Krajelis | Mar 3, 2014

CHICAGO (Legal Newsline) - The Illinois First District Appellate Court could soon have to decide whether to review what may be the first jury award for a whistleblower claim under the state's decade-old ethics act.

A Cook County jury earlier this month awarded nearly $2.5 million to James Crowley, a former senior legal counsel for Chicago State University who claimed he was fired in retaliation for complying with public record laws and reporting misconduct over allegedly questionable contracts.

Following a nearly two-week trial, a jury on Feb. 18 awarded Crowley $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 in back pay for four years of salary. The jury also ordered that Crowley be reinstated to the job he was fired from in February 2010.

Chicago State plans to appeal, university spokesman Tom Wogan said today, noting that he is unclear on the timetable, but is hoping for a successful appeal.

"The University stands behind our decision to defend this case in court," Wogan said in a statement. "While we disagree with the decision of the jury, we fully respect the judicial process and we will pursue an appeal to their decision."

Crowley's attorney, Anthony Pinelli, said Friday he plans to ask Cook County Circuit Judge James McCarthy to double the back pay award and make the university pay interest, a pair of remedies provided under the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.

The act also allows courts to award attorneys' fees and costs and to order reinstatement of the employee's job and benefits in an attempt to make "the state employee whole and to prevent future violations."

He said the parties are scheduled to return to court March 11, when McCarthy is expected to make a ruling on those requests.

Pinelli said while the university told McCarthy it planned to file a motion seeking a reduction in the amount of punitive damages, he doesn't believe the award was unreasonable as to warrant it being lowered.

As far as a potential appeal, Pinelli said he doesn't think there were any significant fair trial issues that would warrant a reversal, but expects the university will do whatever it can to get the award reversed.

Regardless of what's next in the university's litigation plan, Pinelli said the fact that neither side had any precedent to look to for guidance makes this "an unusual case."

Even though the state's ethics act is more than a decade-old, Pinelli said there aren't many reported decisions on it from the state's courts.

Enacted in 2003 and amended since, the state ethics law lays out civil and criminal penalties for violators and provides whistle-blower protection to state employees who report unethical behavior.

Ironically, the act intended to prevent public corruption was signed into law by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is now behind bars after being convicted on corruption charges.

Crowley filed a whistleblower claim under the act in 2010, shortly after he was terminated from his position at Chicago State University. His suit named the university, its president Wayne Watson and trustees of the school's board.

He claimed he was fired for complying with requests made under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act about the hiring of Watson and bringing allegations of misconduct to the Illinois Attorney General's office.

Crowley alleges Watson told him not to provide the information members of the press and a faculty member had requested.

Watson had left City Colleges of Chicago to join Chicago State in August 2009. His start date, however, was moved back to October based on a rule requiring two months between university jobs in order to collect the pension from the previous position.

Crowley's suit and disclosures to the Attorney General's Office questioned whether Watson actually waited to start working until October and if the university was altering other contracts.

He alleged that Watson was paid a salary, sent contracts and held meetings in his official capacity and renovated his university residence prior to his contract's start date.

Chicago State, however, maintained at trial that Crowley was terminated for cause, including misusing university funds for personal parking, among other reasons.

Preston Pugh, the attorney who represented the university at trial, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week that the Attorney General's Office made no findings against Chicago State after it looked into Crowley's allegations.

He also said that Crowley's termination couldn't have been retaliatory because Chicago State didn't know he went to the attorney general at the time.

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