University of Hawaii Settles ‘Whistle-Blower’ Case for $800,000

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BY JIM DOOLEY – The University of Hawaii will pay $800,000 to settle a former employee’s claims that she was fired for whistle-blowing.

The settlement is the second large payment by the University in a month to resolve allegations of improper conduct by UH officials.

Late last month, the regents agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging cronyism in the award of a management contract at the $120 million Cancer Research Center of Hawaii project.

The latest settlement, filed in federal court this week, resolves a 2008 suit filed by Judith Vergun, former director of Community Programs at the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

Vergun alleged that that she was terminated by UH in 2006 because she had earlier reported possible wrongdoing in a federally-funded university research program.

Eric Ferrer, attorney for Vergun, said the University has agreed to pay the $800,000 settlement. Ferrer and Vergun were unavailable for further comment on the settlement.

The University and its attorney, Lex Smith, did not respond to requests for comment on the Vergun settlement.

In May, U.S. Magistrate-Judge Barry Kurren ruled that the University had been “grossly negligent” in failing to produce records subpoenaed by Vergun in her lawsuit.

Kurren ordered UH to pay for an independent expert’s search of records and computer files for documents relevant to the case. And he ruled that the university must pay legal fees and expenses incurred by Vergun related to the missing records.

University officials repeatedly told Vergun and Ferrer that they had turned over all materials relevant to the lawsuit but numerous new e-mails were later discovered by the plaintiff through subpoenas to Mainland academics involved in Vergun’s work.

Smith said in a court hearing in May that he didn’t know why the records hadn’t been produced by the university.

“I stand in a humble position,” Smith said. “I would tell you if I had a reliable explanation. I do not.”

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com

2 COMMENTS

    • Wow. I didn’t know J. Vergun’s case had been settled until I started doing research on the $327K in legal bills the UH paid to defend the case and came across your post. That figure was in yesterday’s Star Advertiser. However, I don’t remember their ever reporting the settlement. What a disastrous waste of $$. Even worse, the UH staffers she originally blew the whitle on are probably still employed. A belated ‘thank you’ for your report.

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