Chicago State Accused of Hiding Financial Records

CHICAGO (CN) – The Chicago Tribune claims in court that Chicago State University has refused to provide public records about a multi-million dollar campus expansion.

The Tribune sued the university in Cook County Circuit Court on Wednesday for failure to comply with the newspaper’s document request made under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

“Chicago State University is a public university that receives nearly all of its funding from Illinois taxpayers, including $20.1 million in emergency funding approved by the General Assembly in April 2016,” the lawsuit states. “Those taxpayers, including Tribune and its readers, have a statutory right to know how their money is spent.”

The Tribune claims CSU has refused to produce any records pertaining to the planned development of a satellite campus. The paper says it’s an expansion that the university continues to pursue despite 300 layoffs in 2016 and a debt burden of approximately $350 million.

“CSU’s refusal comes notwithstanding that numerous procurements are complete, contractors have been selected, and contracts have been executed and paid with public monies,” the complaint states.

A CSU spokeswoman said Thursday that the university “does its best to meet its FOIA responsibilities and acknowledges receipt of all FOIA request received by any individual seeking records.”

The Tribune claims that CSU has a history of funding improprieties.

“Wayne Watson, the CSU president who oversaw the transactions at issue in this  lawsuit, was appointed amidst allegations  ‘that focused on Watson’s alleged use of state funds to renovate the so-called ‘presidential residence,’’ and departed in 2016 as allegations of contract-steering and other misconduct continued to be aired in the courts,” the complaint states.

The paper claims CSU fired James Crowley as its FOIA officer after he refused to comply with Watson’s demand that he withhold public records.

“Watson badgered him repeatedly during [an] hour-long meeting and suggested that only two pages (a moving company’s bill) needed to be produced to satisfy the FOIA requests,” the lawsuit states. “Crowley, meanwhile, insisted that the entire pile of documents was going to be produced. According to Crowley, Watson demanded that nothing be produced without his personal review.”

CSU ultimately paid nearly $4.3 million to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Crowley, according to the complaint.

The Tribune seeks declaratory and injunctive relief giving it access to the campus expansion records. The paper is represented by Natalie Spears of Dentons US in Chicago.

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