The recently fired president of Illinois’ largest community college, whose final days on the job were marked by a storm of controversy, has sued four members of the college's board, alleging he was fired, not for performance reasons, but as a result of a conspiracy among board members and outside political groups to target him to further a contrived political agenda.
On Oct. 21, former College of DuPage President Robert Breuder filed suit in Chicago federal court against the COD board of trustees, and particularly four members of the board, named in the complaint as trustees Kathy Hamilton, Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein. The named defendants were sued as both officials of the college and as individuals.
The lawsuit, which alleged defamation, conspiracy, breach of contract and violation of Breuder’s due process rights, among others, came just one day after the COD board formally voted 4-1 to fire Breuder, effectively voiding a controversial separation agreement he had reached with the college when the board of trustees was under different leadership.
The lawsuit stands as the latest chapter in a story dating back years, when allegations first surfaced of mismanagement and misconduct under Breuder’s leadership at COD.
Published reports in the Chicago Tribune and Daily Herald, among others, have revealed a purported pattern of alleged wasteful spending and financial mismanagement at the college under Breuder’s administration. The allegations included accusations Breuder managed to conceal from the board of trustees tens of millions in dollars in spending on luxury items and excursions, including alcohol, membership at a shooting club and items for overseas hunting trips, as well as a number of college contracts steered to businesses affiliated with those connected to Breuder and the college’s foundation.
Breuder, who had served as president at COD since 2009, first came under public scrutiny in mid-2014 when emails he sent to the board were made public, revealing his plan to invite former Gov. Pat Quinn to speak at the college’s commencement ceremony, purportedly in exchange for $20 million in funds for a “teaching and learning center” project at COD.
Controversy continued to swirl around Breuder from there, reaching a head in early 2015, when Breuder agreed to part ways with the college in March 2016 in exchange for a $763,000 severance package.
That news outraged many, including a slate of candidates who won election to the college’s board in the spring of 2015 on promises to support incumbent COD trustee Kathy Hamilton’s bid to oust Breuder and “claw back” as much of the severance package as possible.
The board formalized those goals with the vote Oct. 20.
In his complaint, however, Breuder said his abrupt termination was improper and illegal, and the product of a political conspiracy to tarnish his name and reputation and hound him from his position.
Breuder said the alleged conspiracy begins with Hamilton, who he alleged took office with the intent of furthering personal political ambitions by manufacturing a controversy about Breuder and the college’s financial practices. He said Hamilton furthered the alleged conspiracy to remove him by partnering with political activist Adam Andrzejewski and his group, For the Good of Illinois, to “sensationalize” the 2014 emails and draw public attention to the college’s spending practices.
Breuder said, prior to his encounters with Hamilton, he had experienced nothing but good reviews from the previous board. His complaint listed a litany of achievements at the college for which Breuder claimed credit, including, among others, increasing enrollment, boosting the college’s financial reserves, securing voter approval for property tax increases within the district to finance improvements at the college’s Glen Ellyn campus, and launching a number of new academic programs.
Breuder said the current board, led by Hamilton and encouraged by outside political pressure, took little note of these purported achievements, however, in sustaining their efforts to remove him and void his severance package.
Despite an internal investigation he compared to a “witch hunt,” Breuder said Hamilton and her allies on the board “uncovered no evidence or information supporting Dr. Breuder’s termination.”
“As a result, the board was forced to pursue other avenues of terminating Dr. Breuder’s employment, including acting to wrongfully void his employment contract and related agreements,” the complaint alleged.
He further alleged the board never provided him “a hearing or a meaningful opportunity to respond to or refute the charges” the board had assembled to justify his termination.
“The charges outlined … are baseless and nothing more than pretext for Defendants Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano, and Bernstein’s predetermination to terminate Dr. Breuder,” Breuder’s complaint stated.
He said the trustees’ actions have “demonized” him in academic circles, and have deprived him of future chances at employment.
Breuder has requested the court order the board members named in his complaint pay him unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
He is represented in the action by attorneys with the firms of Figliulo & Silverman, of Chicago; Dolan Law, of Chicago; and Ekl Williams & Provanzale, of Chicago.