PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — A physics professor at the California Institute of Technology sued the school Thursday, claiming she faced a "merciless campaign" of retaliation for telling the FBI that she suspected illegal activities at the university-managed NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Sandra Troian alleges that Caltech officials violated the school's whistleblower policy by attempting to drive her out of the school and ruin her career after she reported possible violations of federal export laws at the lab.
The suit contends that, among other things, officials falsely accused her of research misconduct; issued false findings of wrongdoing against her; thwarted her participation in campus committees, events and lectures; and denied her more than $1 million in grant funds.
"Instead of resolving the issues around this incident and trying to get to the bottom of it, they decided to cover up the problem and turn up the heat, trumping up one charge after another," Troian said at a news conference.
The suit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
In a statement, Caltech called the lawsuit meritless, denied that Troian suffered retaliation and said she remains an active faculty member.
Caltech said it is confident that the university is complying with export control and other laws and said it regularly cooperates with government agencies, including the FBI, as appropriate.
Troian contends in court papers 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.
The suit alleges that Troian told several administrators that the researcher had sent restricted data to an acquaintance in Israel and put it on a public website without 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 the lab was up for renewal, according to the lawsuit.
Troian eventually took the researcher off the project, but he remained on campus.
Two years later, FBI agents approached Troian and said 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.
"Two weeks after my last contact with the FBI, my world came crashing down around me, as Caltech started a merciless campaign ongoing to this day of retaliation for my speaking to the FBI," she said. "I've been humiliated, degraded, isolated, treated like a pariah on campus."
Troian continues to work at Caltech on the space propulsion project. Her lawsuit accuses the school of breach of contract, retaliation in violation of the state labor code and not acting in good faith.
Her attorney, Dan Stormer, said the suit seeks to restore Troian's reputation and the potential she has for the future. It asks the court to issue an injunction ensuring Caltech stops all disciplinary actions and seeks damages related to loss of future earnings and emotional distress.
Stormer said the government investigation continues, as far as he's aware, and could take years to complete.