Trials & Litigation

Lawyer wins $2.5M in whistleblower claim against university

A former senior legal counsel at Chicago State University has been awarded nearly $2.5 million in a whistleblower case based on an Illinois ethics law governing state employees.

Jurors deliberated for less than an hour on Feb. 18 before awarding James Crowley $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 for four years of back pay, the Chicago Tribune reported this week. Judge James McCarthy of Cook County will decide on March 11 whether to double the amount of back pay, assess interest and award attorney fees.

Crowley had alleged he was fired in retaliation for reporting questionable contracts to the Illinois Attorney General’s office and for reporting what he deemed to be a threat made amid a disagreement over the disclosure of public documents, the story says.

The verdict may be the first under a 2003 Illinois law protecting state employees who report unethical behavior, according to the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Chicago State had claimed Crowley was fired for using university funds to pay for a reserved parking space and for giving preferential treatment to a student who was his friend, the story says. The university alleged Crowley used scholarship funds to pay for the student’s textbooks and university funds to buy a plane ticket so the student could attend a Hawaii conference. The trip was later canceled.

Crowley’s lawyer said the allegations were “trumped up charges,” though Crowley should have sought a sign-off before using university funds for the reserved space.

The university plans to appeal.

Crowley, 47, says he has had trouble finding a legal job since the university filed an ethics complaint against him after his firing in February 2010. The Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission did not pursue the case, but Crowley told the Tribune he had to disclose it nonetheless to potential employers. He said he has had just one nine-month contract job in the last four years.

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