A Cook County judge questioned the jury foreman in a landmark whistleblower case today in an effort to determine whether the juror’s failure to disclose his involvement in other legal matters resulted in an unfair trial for Chicago State University.
The closed-door hearing came about two months after the Tribune reported that foreman Antoine Bass did not disclose during jury selection that he had been sued in a wrongful termination case brought by a relative of a Chicago State trustee.
Bass was on the jury this year that found in favor of a former Chicago State employee who claimed he was fired in retaliation for reporting alleged misconduct by top university officials. The university has been ordered to pay more than $3 million to the employee, James Crowley.
The verdict was believed to be the first stemming from a whistleblower claim filed under the state ethics act, which set out guidelines for behavior by employees and included protection for workers who disclose activities they believe violate the act.
Cook County Circuit Judge James McCarthy questioned Bass for about 45 minutes in his chambers this morning. A court reporter was present for the hearing, but a transcript was not immediately available.
A ruling is expected by Sept. 1.
“We are going to let the process play out, and we are still confident that, whether through post-trial motions or an appeal, the university will be vindicated,” Chicago State spokesman Thomas Wogan said.
Though judges are reluctant to reverse jury decisions, legal experts contend the relationship between the foreman and the trustee’s family could meet the extraordinarily high bar set when evaluating juror conduct during the selection process and whether it warrants a new trial.
Crowley’s attorney Anthony Pinelli said he does not believe Bass’ omission was egregious enough to overturn the verdict. The 14-member jury, which included two voting alternate jurors, deliberated for less than an hour before ruling in favor of Crowley on Feb. 18.
“I don’t think that Mr. Bass’ error prejudiced this case,” Pinelli said. “There’s no evidence from any juror that Mr. Bass coerced or influenced them.”
As he left the courthouse, Bass shook Crowley’s hand and wished him well. Bass also told a Tribune reporter that the judge “seemed to” accept his explanation that failing to disclose the wrongful termination lawsuit was an innocent mistake.
“It went fine,” Bass said.
According to court documents, McCarthy had asked all prospective jurors during the selection process to raise their hands if they, a relative or a close friend had “ever been involved in a lawsuit, or are you currently involved in a lawsuit.” Bass, a school board member in south suburban Rich Township, acknowledged he had been sued seven years ago in connection with his appraisal business.
However, he did not disclose he was named as one of the defendants in a then-pending wrongful termination case filed last year by former Rich Township High School District 227 Superintendent Donna Leak. Leak is the daughter-in-law of Chicago State board member Spencer Leak Sr.
Bass also did not mention that he filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and was a defendant in a mortgage foreclosure case in 2009, court records show. He did not tell the court that he was the complaining victim in an assault case involving another school board member, according to the motion.
Bass told the Tribune he did not disclose the Leak lawsuit because he considered it a school board matter and did not know about Spencer Leak's connection to Chicago State until after the trial ended. He also said he did not mention the other litigation because he considered lawsuits as “someone suing me for money” or “somebody suing me for doing something wrong to them individually.”
A Cook County judge dismissed most of Donna Leak’s claims in April. Bass, however, said he has never had any personal animosity toward the Leak family.
“I am not a longtime political enemy of the Leak Family,” he said. “I don’t even know them.”