A physics professor at the California Institute of Technology sued the school Thursday, claiming she faced retaliation for telling the FBI that she suspected illegal activities at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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 contends that, among other things, the campaign 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.
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.
"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," Troian said in a press statement announcing the lawsuit.
Caltech spokeswoman Deborah Williams-Hedges said the institute was not aware of the case and had not yet reviewed the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
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.
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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.
The retaliation began after Troian answered the agents' questions and told them about Caltech's response to her previous concerns, the suit claimed.
"Sandra Troian has a right, guaranteed by California's state laws, to speak to the FBI about violations of export laws that implicate grave national security concerns," Lynne Bernabei, partner in one of two law firms that filed the suit, said in a statement. "It offends all notions of justice that instead of commending Troian for being a good citizen, Caltech is retaliating against her."