Along with at least $200,000 we have recently spent on new administrators, the university finds other important places to spend our (according to Watson's numerous memorandums) dwindling resources. Legal fees to defend various members of the university administration against a number of lawsuits are important and thoroughly justifiable expenses.
Recently, after more than three months of unnecessary delays caused by the university’s legal department, I received a response to my FOIA request for legal contracts and invoices. The process of acquiring this material as well as the information itself sheds considerable light on how Chicago State discharges its responsibilities as a public institution.
On March 19, 2015 at 9:19am, I sent my FOIA request for copies of the legal contracts and invoices for five separate law firms (Laner Muchin; Husch, Blackwell; Pugh, Jones; Smith, Amundsen; and Fisher, Phillips) involved or formerly involved in personnel investigations or ongoing litigation against Wayne Watson and company. The Illinois Attorney General had declared this type of material public information, subject to FOIA, in a 2014 binding opinion (14-002). When I sent the FOIA request, I fully expected to hear nothing since the university’s legal department makes a habit of ignoring my FOIA requests (according to my unofficial records, the university has failed to respond to 20 of 35 requests I have made since August 2013).
To my great surprise, I received an e-mail from Patrick Cage seven minutes later denying my request and citing attorney-client privilege as the reason the requested information was exempt from disclosure. I immediately appealed Cage’s denial to the Illinois Public Access Counselor. In April, the Public Access Counselor had at least two fruitless conversations with the university’s legal department about the request. On May 6, the Public Access Counselor sent a letter to Chicago State indicating that despite the two telephone conversations and requests for information supporting the university’s denial of my FOIA request that “the University still has not provided a written response or copies of the requested records to this office.” The letter continued by saying: “we renew our request for those materials, and ask that the University provide them expeditiously.” This letter apparently moved the university to provide the requested documents, which it did on May 13.
After a review of the documents sent by Chicago State, the Public Access Counselor issued a “determination” which found that Chicago State had “improperly withheld” the information I had requested and directed the university to provide me the copies I had requested in March. Of course, since this is Chicago State, nothing is simple. After several days of silence, I wrote the legal department on June 15 (sending a copy to the Public Access Counselor) asking whether or not the university intended to comply with the Public Access Counselor’s determination. In addition, the Public Access Counselor asked the same question. A victimized Patrick Cage replied by mewling: “Yes, I fully intend to comply with the 40th records request I have received from Dr. bionaz .” Poor Patrick! Poor Chicago State! Imagine having to respond to those pesky requests for public information. Finally, on June 23, I received the records I had requested on March 19.
After absorbing the lesson in civics provided by the giants in our legal department, I was able to turn my attention to the records they provided. The information paints a picture of a university administration spending huge sums of money on litigation caused by improper administrative actions. The information also demonstrates how the university withholds information in required reports to the state legislature. The amount of money the university spends on legal contracts and the relative absence of this information in reports to a group ostensibly responsible for safeguarding Illinois taxpayers suggests that the university is involved in an attempt to hide the extent of its reckless spending from elected officials.
I requested specific information for five firms. For one, the university apparently has no invoices or contracts. The university used the other four firms to either conduct personnel investigations or to defend the university (read Wayne Watson) from various high-profile suits. In December 2010, the university hired Pugh, Jones and Johnson for $96,500 to provide legal services in the Crowley case. This contract ran until June 30, 2012. On May 17, 2012, the university renewed the contract until June 30, 2014, at a maximum cost of $243,000. On February 5, 2014, the university contracted with Laner Muchin, a self-styled “workplace intelligence firm” to “review certain conduct” by unnamed parties and conduct an investigation. The contract, expiring on June 30, 2014, called for a maximum of $30,000 to conduct this purported “investigation.” On June 6, 2014, the university hired Fisher-Phillips to defend Wayne Watson in the Glenn Meeks lawsuit. This contract, amended on May 21, 2015, runs until June 30, 2016 and commits the university to a maximum of $242,500 for Fisher-Phillips' legal services. On December 10, 2014, the university contracted with Husch-Blackwell to provide legal services for the “defendants in the Beverly v. Chicago State University,” case. This contract runs through June 30, 2016, and sets a limit of $100,000 for expenditures in this matter. Thus, for just these four firms to conduct one investigation and provide legal services for three lawsuits, the university committed $712,000. At this point, two other major lawsuits are pending: Willie Preston/Brittany Bailey v. Wayne Watson and Lashondra Peebles v. Chicago State. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is defending the university against Preston/Bailey and according to the Cook County docket, Fisher-Phillips is defending the university against Peebles. Also according to the Cook County docket, Smith Amundsen defended the university in the post-trial matters in the Crowley case. I find it curious that the university apparently has neither invoices nor contracts for Fisher-Phillips in the Peelbes case or for Smith Amundsen in the Crowley case. I suppose these are freebies. Obviously there are expenses associated with these two other cases. Even though the state is defending the university against Preston/Bailey, there is still a substantial cost to the taxpayer. As for the Peebles case, I would estimate that the university’s legal expenses thus far are at least $25,000.
So how much does the university actually claim to have spent on these (and other) matters and how much of its expenditures did it report to the Illinois State Legislature?
Based on the invoices I received from my FOIA request, Chicago State spent $250,000 on Pugh, Jones and Johnson, and $26,518.3 on Laner Muchin. Ostensibly, these are the final expenditures for these two firms. Ongoing expenses include $43,009.86 for Husch-Blackwell and $154,435.40 for Fisher-Phillips. The total expenses come to: $473,963.40. Given the absence of at least two major law firms in the Crowley appeal and in the Peebles case, this figure seems suspect.
The yearly report to the Illinois State Legislature (ISL Forms) is based on calendar year expenditures. The most recent report, for fiscal 2016, includes expenditures up to the end of December 2014. For fiscal 2015, the expenditures go through December 2013, for fiscal 2014, through December 2012, for fiscal 2013, through December 2011. Since the beginning of 2011, the university should have itemized at least $333,820.80 spent on these four firms for the ISL report. However, we reported a total of $159,500 for those years, only 48 percent of the total expenses for these legal contracts. The yearly breakdown looks like this: for the 2016 report (calendar 2014), Chicago State reported $133,000. Expenses according to the invoices total $140,238. For the 2015 report (calendar 2013), Chicago State reported $25,800 in expenses. According to invoices, we actually spent $125,164. For the 2014 report (calendar 2012), we itemized $700. According to invoices, we spent $33,564. For the 2013 report (calendar 2011), we itemized nothing with actual expenditures according to invoices of $34,854.29.
For the individual firms, as far as anyone in the Illinois legislature knows, through the end of 2014, we have spent a total of $130,200 for Pugh, Jones and Johnson (actual invoice totals $250,000). For Fisher-Phillips, the university has reported expenditures of $2800 with actual invoice totals of $57,302.70. Only Laner Muchin is accurate, with the university reporting $26,500 in expenses on actual invoices of $26,518. This seems like either terrible accounting practices or willful misstatement of financial facts.
The upshot of all this is simple: the Watson administration is costing Chicago State dearly. Watson and his cronies have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars in legal expenses for behavior that has already in one case been found culpable with resulting enormous damages. Frankly, there is no end in sight. In the last ISL report, the university itemized just over $787,000 in contract legal expenses in calendar 2014. So far in calendar 2015, the expenses for just the two firms involved in ongoing litigation total just under $200,000 (invoices through May 6, 2015), with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees still to come. I guess our Board of Trustees thinks Watson and his friends are all worth it. Here are copies of the Pugh, Jones and Johnson contracts and the invoices provided by Chicago State. These contracts are between the Board of Trustees and the individual firms. Do the members of the board know how much the Watson administration is costing this school? Do they even care? Does anybody care?