Breuder sues College of DuPage board, Hamilton faction over firing

 
 
Updated 10/21/2015 5:51 PM
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  • Robert L. Breuder has filed a federal lawsuit against the College of DuPage, claiming wrongful termination.

    Robert L. Breuder has filed a federal lawsuit against the College of DuPage, claiming wrongful termination. Daily Herald File

  • Kathy Hamilton

    Kathy Hamilton

  • Deanne Mazzochi

    Deanne Mazzochi

  • Charles Bernstein

    Charles Bernstein

  • Frank Napolitano

    Frank Napolitano

One day after being fired as president of the College of DuPage, Robert Breuder filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday claiming he was wrongfully terminated from the school.

He is seeking more than $2 million in damages.

The suit names COD's seven-member board of trustees and specifically four of its members -- Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton and Trustees Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein -- as defendants.

The four on Tuesday night approved a resolution to fire Breuder roughly five months before he was scheduled to step down with a much-maligned $763,000 severance package.

Hamilton, with the help of her supporters, ran a "malicious and wrongful scheme" that "maliciously tarnished Dr. Breuder's professional reputation" while trampling on his contractual and constitutional rights, the suit says.

"Defendants Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano, and Bernstein had decided to wrongfully terminate Dr. Breuder long before October 20, 2015, based solely on their personal interests and political agendas," the lawsuit reads. It says the charges outlined in the board's resolution "are baseless and nothing more than pretext" for the four board members' "predetermination" to fire Breuder, who began work as COD's president on Jan. 1, 2009.

"The recent actions of the COD board are illegal on multiple levels -- period," Breuder's attorney, Martin Dolan, said in a written statement. "It's time for Dr. Breuder to set the record straight, the web of false accusations by certain members of the current board must stop. ... This is nothing more than an abuse of office and power by a board who has a personal vendetta and will stop at nothing to try and find wrongdoing, of which there is none."

As a result of that vendetta, Breuder, 71, was denied speaking engagements and other work, had awards revoked and was the subject of hostile news stories in national publications including USA Today and The Washington Post, according to the more than 40-page lawsuit.

It also alleges Hamilton made her motives clear from the moment she was elected in April 2013. She told Breuder and Thomas Glaser, a COD senior vice president who was fired last month, that she ran for the COD board, her first attempt at an elected post, "to attain higher political office." She also told them she would "achieve that goal by finding something wrong with the college, specifically by using her purported experience as a CPA to find irregularities in the college's finances and spending," the suit says.

Hamilton, contacted by the Daily Herald, said she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. Mazzochi and Bernstein also declined to comment.

Napolitano said he hadn't seen the lawsuit, either. But he said he wasn't surprised Breuder "would take this avenue."

"Based on the information that I've received from our legal counsel, I believe that we will be able to defend ourselves," Napolitano said. "We'll see where things go."

The college, meanwhile, issued a written statement saying the board stands by its action to fire Breuder.

"It (the board) denies the baseless allegations in his lawsuit," the statement reads. "The board will vigorously defend this case in court."

Points in the lawsuit include:

• A lengthy recitation of Breuder's "performance," with bullet points consuming every letter in the alphabet of his "significant improvements, advancements and accolades" for the college. They range from his "instrumental" work in getting voter approval of a $168 million tax increase to renovate and modernize the Glen Ellyn campus to a long list of professional recognitions, including being named the 2012 DuPage County Fire Chiefs Association Honorary Fire Chief.

• In May 2014, Hamilton leaked a "confidential and privileged" email between Breuder and the COD board to Adam Andrzejewski, founder of watchdog group For the Good of Illinois, detailing potential use of a $20 million state grant, knowing that making it public would "publicly tarnish the professional and ethical credibility of Dr. Breuder and the then-board." Andrzejewski then submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for Breuder's emails that covered that time frame. In that email, Breuder had suggested the college put then Gov. Pat Quinn on the spot by publicly thanking him for the promised grant at a COD graduation ceremony. The grant was withdrawn after the governor's office learned of the email.

• Hamilton personally contributed between $80,000 and $100,000 to help with the election of Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein, whom she recruited to "clean up" COD. Since then, the suit states, the "Clean Slate" has been the subject of five complaints of violating campaign disclosure requirements.

Breuder is seeking:

• Compensatory damages for the "defendants' violations of Dr. Breuder's constitutional and common law rights."

• Punitive damages from Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein "for their violations of Dr. Breuder's constitutional and common law rights."

• Compensatory damages for the board's breaches of Breuder's severance deal, which was approved in January 2015.

• Compensatory and punitive damages from Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein "for their intentional interference" with Breuder's contractual rights.

• Compensatory and punitive damages from Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein for defaming Breuder.

He also is requesting compensation for his legal costs and attorneys' fees and "all other relief as the court finds just and equitable."

In all, Dolan said Breuder is seeking more than $2 million based on "everything he's lost," including benefits, wages and the severance deal.

"As far as what your reputation is worth and the loss of that reputation because of the actions of these people, I don't know if there's a dollar figure you can place on that," Dolan said. "But we'll let a jury do that."

The COD board majority said it fired Breuder in the wake of internal investigations that, according to the termination resolution, found evidence of "misconduct and mismanagement" that Breuder "participated in, oversaw or failed to prevent."

The resolution said Breuder, who has been on paid administrative leave since late April, "violated specific policies established by the college, violated board of trustee and legal directives, breached his duties and engaged in conduct damaging to the reputation of the college and the reputation of the office of the college president."

The vote to fire Breuder was 4-1, with Trustee Dianne McGuire casting the only no vote. Two other trustees, Erin Birt and Joseph Wozniak, were absent.

But Breuder's lawsuit says Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein had decided to fire him long before Tuesday night, "based solely on their personal interests and political agendas."

On Wednesday, Napolitano said "that's not accurate."

"I was certainly willing to review any information pertaining to his defense of any claims that were made against him," Napolitano said. "They were not provided."

Napolitano insisted that he didn't have a predetermination to fire Breuder before getting all the facts. "I think based on the facts that were presented to us, we made the right decision (on Tuesday night)," he said.

The board's vote to fire Breuder voided the school's $763,000 severance package with him -- a package approved by the previous board and staunchly opposed by Hamilton and her allies.

As part of that package, Breuder was scheduled to step down on his own in March 2016.

Breuder has run community colleges since 1981, when he was named president of Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport at the age of 36. He served there until taking the reins at Harper College in Palatine in 1998, where he stayed until he left for COD.

Breuder became the third high-ranking COD administrator to be fired this fall, joining Glaser and Lynn Sapyta, the assistant vice president of financial affairs. Attorneys for both Glaser and Sapyta have said they plan to file their own federal lawsuits against the school before year's end.

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