CHICAGO (CN) – Chicago State University fired its senior legal counsel for responding to FOIA requests about the controversial hiring of a new president, the attorney claims in Cook County Court. James Crowley claims the new president, Wayne Watson, threatened his job and ordered him to restrict the flow of information to Tribune reporters and a faculty member, who had requested it, and fired him when he refused to do so.
The chairman of the board of trustees hired Watson, then-chancellor of the City Colleges, which set off public controversy, according to the complaint. “As a result, the Board of Trustees hired a presidential search firm, The Hollins Group, to conduct a search for a new university president. In addition, a University Search Committee was formed to assist in the hiring process.
“In 2009, the University Search Committee resigned in protest over the selection of Watson. Watson’s hiring resulted in protests from students, faculty and administrators. As a result, the media covered Watson’s hiring and the protests, and this generated numerous requests for information regarding his hiring.”
Watson was hired to begin on July 1, 2009, and retired from the City Colleges on June 30, 2009, the complaint states. But the State University Retirement System required that he wait for 90 days before beginning his new job, “as a requirement for receipt of a retirement benefit,” so his start date was pushed back to Oct. 1.
Then came allegations in the media that Watson actually began working – “and whether he sent contracts to his friends” – months before October.
Allegations included that he made “renovations and moving into the residence of the university president, held meetings and made decisions in the capacity as university president regarding the operation of CSU,” Crowley says in his complaint.
Crowley says Watson claimed that he was “volunteering” before his start date, though he “was paid a full year’s salary for a nine-month period of employment.”
A university faculty member and two Chicago Tribune reporters demanded information on whether Watson was living in the presidential residence, “was using the president’s staff, thereby being a non-state employee having state employees work for him, was making decisions on behalf of the state and spending state dollars,” according to the complaint.
Crowley says that the media and private groups wanted to know “whether Watson was really working and not ‘volunteering,’ whether he violated SURS rules and state contracting laws, and whether he sent contracts to his friends.”
Crowley says that in August 2009, in the midst of gathering the documents, he was called into the president’s office.
Crowley says Watson tried to persuade him that “only two pages consisting of the moving company bill were responsive,” though Crowley insisted that “numerous additional pages related to the residence should be tendered in order to be in compliance with the FOIA request.”
Watson then grabbed his wrist and told him, “If you read this my way, you are my friend. If you read it the other way, you are my enemy,” the complaint states.
“Plaintiff Crowley understood this statement to be a threat.”
Crowley claims that during that, meeting Watson told him to contact the Hartman Group, Direct Mail Solutions and FLW – companies that had contracts with the university – and discuss the information that he intended to release.
On Sept. 1, 2009, Crowley met with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and turned over copies of the requested materials, related documents and some of the contracts. He also “detailed his concerns and fears of retaliation,” he says.
Crowley says he had had reservations about the contracts, and that ultimately the work was not performed as expected.
Crowley says that in January this year he confronted the school’s general counsel, Patrick Cage, after discovering that the contracts had been altered after he had approved them.
On Jan. 26 this year, just days before SURS scheduled a hearing for Watson, it “sent follow-up FOIA requests to Patrick Cage requesting copies of the FOIA requests made to CSU and responses which had been prepared by Crowley and noting that Cage had failed to timely respond to prior requests for the materials,” the complaint states. “Crowley released all documents responsive to the FOIA request as required by law,” according to the complaint.
As a result, Crowley says, he was placed on one-week leave and then Watson fired him via letter, disregarding the university’s termination procedures.
Crowley demands reinstatement, back pay and costs from CSU and Watson, and damages from Watson “sufficient to prevent his future violation of 5 ILCS 430/15-5 et seq.,” (the Illinois State Official and Employees Act and the Illinois Whistleblower Act).
His lead counsel is Anthony Pinelli.