PASADENA (CBSLA.com/AP) — A physics professor at the California Institute of Technology sued the school Thursday, claiming she faced retaliation for telling the FBI she suspected illegal activities at the university-managed NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Dr. Sandra Troian alleges that Caltech officials violated the school's own whistleblower policy by conducting a campaign of retaliation to "drive her out of Caltech and ruin her career" after she reported possible violations of federal export laws at JPL, which is managed by Caltech.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses Caltech of breach of contract, retaliation in violation of the state labor code and not acting in good faith.
Attorney Dan Stormer told KNX 1070's Mark Austin Thomas that Caltech's alleged campaign against his client included falsely accusing her of research misconduct, issuing false findings of wrongdoing against her, thwarting her participation in campus committees, events and lectures and denying her more than $1 million in grant funds.
"They now are trapped in a vicious cycle whereby they have to continue to attack my client to ruin her career in order to cover up their misdeeds," Stormer said.
Troian's suit contends that in 2010 she notified Caltech officials of concerns about a postdoctoral researcher she hired to work with her on a space propulsion system funded by the Pentagon's Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency.
According to the suit, several administrators were told that the researcher had sent restricted data to an acquaintance in Israel and put it on a public website without required permission but the officials refused Troian's repeated requests to take away the researcher's files and fire him.
At the time, the school's multibillion-dollar contract with NASA to run JPL was up for renewal, according to the lawsuit.
Troian eventually took the researcher off the project but he remained on campus.
Two years later, Troian was approached by FBI agents who said that the researcher was the focus of a larger investigation into export law violations and possible spying, the lawsuit said.
While Troian is still teaching at Caltech, Stormer said he found the allegations shocking.
"In the years that I have done this, I have rarely seen such despicable conduct, I have rarely seen such a direct violation of national security requirements and retaliation for reporting it," said Troian. "It is a black mark on Caltech."
In a statement, Caltech called the lawsuit meritless and denied that Troian suffered retaliation.
According to the university, " … The plaintiff, who was dissatisfied with the outcome of a recent internal campus investigation into her decision to list her cat as the author of a published abstract suffered no retaliation."
Caltech further said it is confident the university is complying with export control and other laws and said it regularly cooperates with government agencies, including the FBI, as appropriate.
"Because you have an investigation about a cat on a silly abstract but right under your nose is basically possibly espionage but that doesn't bother them," Troian countered.
"I have committed my heart and soul to Caltech. But I will not violate the law. And, I will not allow Caltech to ruin my career for alerting them to violations of laws intended to protect our greater society," said Troian in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Caltech was named among the top 10 most powerful global university brands in the world in a survey of global scholars by the Times Higher Education World Reputation Ranking.
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