- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

CHICAGO (AP) - An Illinois appellate court ruled Wednesday that a former Chicago State University administrator should be paid more than $3 million after he claimed he was fired for acting as a whistleblower.

A three-judge panel of the court ruled the financially troubled university launched “a campaign designed to both economically harm … and inflict psychological distress upon” former university attorney and administrator James Crowley, The Chicago Tribune reported (http://trib.in/1TpeyXT ). Crowley alleges the university retaliated against him after he refused to withhold documents requested under the state’s open records law about university President Wayne Watson’s employment and reported questionable university contracts to the attorney general’s office.

The court called the university’s behavior “thoroughly reprehensible.”

“Defendants did whatever they could to protect Watson’s reputation, and they did it at Crowley’s expense, when he sought only to comply with the public’s right to know information about the activities of a state university,” Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote in the unanimous opinion by the three-judge panel.

Watson stepped down as president last year.

University attorneys had claimed Crowley was fired for misusing university resources.

Crowley was originally awarded $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 in back pay. Cook County Judge James McCarthy later doubled the amount of back pay and interest bringing that amount to $1.02 million. The judge also ordered Chicago State to pay more than $300,000 in attorneys’ fees and that Crowley receive his $120,000-a-year salary until any appeals are resolved.

Court records indicate the university’s insurance can cover the award to Crowley, the newspaper reported.

“The university is disappointed in today’s ruling upholding the unprecedented level of punitive damages awarded in this case,” the university said in a statement. “We will immediately move to appeal this decision to the state Supreme Court. The main issue of contention in this case is the question of the large punitive awards, and the question is an important one.”

Crowley, who is now working a temporary job as a document reviewer, praised the court’s decision.

“I think it sends an important message to Illinois residents that we can do the right thing, hold our public officials accountable and be confident that we are protected by the law,” he said.

The ruling comes after Illinois’ ongoing state budget crisis has led Chicago State University to tell its 900 employees that they could be laid off. Public universities in Illinois haven’t received any state funding for eight months because of the state’s budget impasse.

It’s unclear how many employees could be laid off at Chicago State, where cost-savings steps have already eliminated spring break and shortened the semester.

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Information from: Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com

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