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Lawsuit suggests little is changing at Chicago State

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Mary Mitchell

In a lawsuit filed in circuit court last week, Chicago State University's former senior legal counsel has accused the school's controversial president, Wayne Watson, of trying to force him to withhold information sought under the Freedom of Information Act.

James Crowley is suing the university and Watson, alleging he was fired after he blew the whistle on Watson's actions.

"I am an attorney and an officer of the court. I have taken an oath to follow the law," Crowley told me during a telephone interview.

"When somebody threatens me, trying to get me to break [the law], I am not going to go down for somebody else's stuff."

Chicago State University released the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

Crowley was "justifiably terminated for cause . . . The termination decision was made by the Office of Labor and Legal Affairs, not at the University President's level. In accordance with University policy, however, the President signs off on all terminations . . . The allegations Mr. Crowley now bring are unfounded, and the University intends to defend itself vigorously against this meritless lawsuit."

Sadly, Crowley's retribution allegations sound all too familiar.

In 2009, Maria Moore, former general manager of WYCC-TV, the PBS station at City Colleges of Chicago, sued the City Colleges, alleging that Watson fired her in 2007 after she voiced concerns about the television station being used for political purposes.

In the latest case, Crowley is alleging that Watson fired him because he would not withhold information being sought by reporters.

Watson left City Colleges to take the helm of the scandal-scarred university.

Under the State University Retirement System rules, Watson was prohibited for 90 days from starting a new university position after retiring from another state university system for purposes of receiving a retirement benefit.

The lawsuit alleges that during that mandated 90-day hiatus, "Watson began renovations and moving into the residence of the university president, held meetings and made decisions in the capacity as university president regarding the operations of CSU."

According to the lawsuit, FOIA requests were made to Chicago State University in July and August of 2009 from the faculty, the media and private groups.

"The controversy included the following: 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," according to the lawsuit.

Having received several FOIA requests about the issue, Watson allegedly told Crowley only "two pages" were responsive to the request.

However, Crowley maintained that "numerous additional pages" were required to satisfy the FOIA request. "Watson physically grabbed Crowley's 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 lawsuit claims.

Crowley also said that he was instructed to "contact both Hermene Hartman and Marilyn Katz" -- both non-state employees who landed contracts with Chicago State University -- to advise them what he planned to release in response to a FOIA request.

According to the lawsuit, in September 2009, Crowley met with representatives of the attorney general's office and provided copies of the FOIA requests, and some of the contracts.

Crowley also alleges that in January of 2010, he was advised by a manager for the Facilities Department that the "terms of certain contracts had been altered" after Crowley had approved the agreements."

Crowley was demoted in February of 2010. Shortly thereafter he was "escorted out of his office by security" and told he was under investigation.

He was notified by letter that he was terminated as of Feb. 19, 2010, after 10 years of employment.

"I believe in that school and I think it is valuable to the city and the people who live here," Crowley told me. "But I would like to see that school get right and become successful."

Obviously, these are only allegations, but they are the kind of accusations that are serious enough to warrant an investigation.

The fact the Board of Trustees hasn't said a peep about this lawsuit reinforces the perception that the leadership at Chicago State University is still out of control.