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WCU whistleblower seeks Supreme Court: What you need to know

Halle Nelson, News Editor

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Colleen Bradley began working for West Chester University in 2011. In that time, she alleges that WCU hid millions of dollars from the state, the public and from faculty by claiming a deficit rather than a surplus.

In an April 2018 interview with Raging Chicken Press, Bradley gives more details about her time at WCU. For example, Bradley says she brought up this alleged manipulation of numbers to her boss Mark Mixner, current university president Christopher Fiorentino (whom she alleges silently supported her) and the Administrative Budget Committee. She claims that her speaking about this publicly angered Mixner. Bradley then went on to say that Mixner went to the university president, who at the time was Greg Weisenstein, to discuss the situation, who then said to him that they needed to report a deficit. It was agreed upon, she said, that she would fill out the rest of the budget report and Mixner would change the transfer line. He did it, but he did so in Bradley’s name.

Bradley says she tried to clear her name to the Administrative Budget Committee by writing up a memorandum distancing herself from the “outright plug of a number” in the budget report. She then reached out to budget managers from other PASSHE institutions, all of whom allegedly claimed the budget report was a “political document” she need not stress over. 2014 arrives, and Bradley says she was told “in order to rebuild [her] credibility” she needed to present the three-year budget projection requested by WCU faculty. She calls the budget they wanted her to present “the sky is falling budget.” She wanted to present a “realistic” budget. Her boss allegedly told her to prepare both, then rescinded the offer and told her to present their budget. Despite direct orders, she brought both budgets to present and then distributed her budget to a meeting of presidents and vice presidents. Mixner was “not happy,” according to Bradley. After these events transpired, Bradley learned that her contract was not going to be renewed due to her “not being the problem solver they thought [she] would be.”

After Bradley was terminated, she decided to sue the university for breaking Pennsylvania whistleblower law. FindLaw defines a whistleblower as, “An employee who reports a violation of the law by his or her employer.” The Philly Inquirer reporter Susan Snyder says the lawsuit, filed in 2015, is a 62-page complaint that says, “the university claimed break-even or deficit budgets, it actually increased its assets by $56.6 million over three years, the lawsuit alleges. Concealing the surpluses allegedly allowed the university to reap more than $146 million in state funding. The university hid the funds in an account for facility maintenance.”

WCU spokesperson Pamela Sheridan said: “The university … vigorously denies Ms. Bradley’s allegations and believes her legal claims to be without merit,” according to philly.com.

In a May 2015 Raging Chicken Press article, Kutztown University professor Kevin Mahoney wrote the following: “Bradley’s lawyers argue that there was even more at stake than simply trying to increase the university’s funding. The complaint also alleges that the budget deception was designed to best position the university to become a state-related university if the 2014 PASSHE Secession Bill had passed; to increase WCU and PASSHE’s leverage in negotiations with the faculty union, APSCUF and other unions on PASSHE campuses; and, to personally benefit the defendants with ‘significant personal financial gains’ if West Chester were successful in breaking away from the 14 university state-owned university system.”

In 2017, The Daily Local reported District Judge Michael Baylson threw out the lawsuit because, “while Bradley’s speech was protected, she failed to prove it was a factor in the university’s decision not to renew her contract.”

One of her lawyers, Dan Kearney, said the following in a Raging Chicken Press interview: “We thought that the case was really unusual in the sense that Colleen had done a very good job of documenting what had transpired here. So, in assessing the case we had a very optimistic view of how the courts would view her case primarily because we weren’t dealing with a ‘he-said, she-said’ sort of situation. We had a black and white paper trail of emails other correspondence, in memorandums, which really set forth in a very clear way factually what had happened here.”

This case was appealed to the Third Circuit Court, which is the court just before the Supreme Court and covers the District of Delaware, the District of New Jersey and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. On Nov. 8, 2017, the court concluded in an official document that their judgment was “in favor of Ms. Bradley’s supervisor, Mark Mixner, holding that, although Ms. Bradley’s speech was constitutionally protected, Mr. Mixner was entitled to qualified immunity.” According to FindLaw, Qualified Immunity, “shields public officials from damages for civil liability so long as they did not violate an individual’s ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional rights.” The Third Circuit Court then cited Supreme Court Case Garcetti v. Ceballos with the following: “‘When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes’ and that, therefore, ‘the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.’”

However, Kearney argues that from a Garcetti perspective, they were in the clear, because “this is the counterpoint to Garcetti in the sense that not only was Colleen not asked to speak out on the issue that she spoke about, she was directed not to speak out against it. Almost to the point where her supervisor might say she was insubordinate in speaking out and exposing these misrepresentations and this fraud.”

In messages exchanged with Professor Kevin Mahoney of Raging Chicken Press and Kutztown University, he said the following: “The key thing here is that no one has been held accountable and the practices of misrepresenting budgets continue. A group of faculty at Kutztown commissioned an independent audit of the university’s financial situation last fall and found the same practices continue.” He continued, “Programs are being eliminated, student fees are being imposed, faculty are losing their jobs, tuition is increasing all on the grounds that there is a budget crisis in PASSHE. The truth is closer to the fact that the ranks of admin are growing and they are seeking unchecked authority to spend money the way they want without public scrutiny. These deceptive budgeting practices feed into the hands of those anti-public education zealots in Harrisburg, who want to gut funding for PASSHE.”

Now Bradley’s team seek a hearing from the Supreme Court. This may be difficult, as the Supreme Court website states they only hear 100-150 of the roughly 7,000 cases directed to them annually. She will file her writ of certiorari within the next few weeks and, if accepted, this case could redefine First Amendment protections in the workplace.

Finally, Mahoney said, “Until the scheme is exposed and people are held accountable, we are being set up to fail.”

Halle Nelson is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in deaf studies and English literature. ✉ [email protected] @Halle_N_Nelson.

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The Student News Service of West Chester University
WCU whistleblower seeks Supreme Court: What you need to know