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News / Northwest

Western Washington University ‘ghost course’ whistleblower wins nearly $3M in lawsuit

Staff accused of giving students credit for classes they weren't actually attending

By Claire Bryan, The Seattle Times
Published: May 19, 2024, 5:11pm

A university auditor who told federal investigators about Western Washington University’s use of “ghost courses,” and was later fired by the school, was awarded nearly $3 million in damages last week for whistleblower retaliation.

A Whatcom County jury found that Antonia Allen, the former director of WWU’s Office of the Internal Auditor, was fired for investigating and reporting that staff and faculty at WWU’s Woodring College of Education gave students credit for attending classes they weren’t actually attending, according to a news release from Sheridan Law Firm. Falsifying classes allowed the students to obtain federal financial aid money.

Dozens of students between 2016 and 2019 were given credit for these “ghost courses,” according to a Seattle Times investigation.

The auditor’s office found that faculty and staff engaged in these activities “for the financial benefit of their students without consideration to university policy, the financial impact on the university or the academic impact on the students who did not receive credit for completed coursework.”

Allen sued the state of Washington in December 2020. There were multiple delays due to the pandemic, said Seattle attorney Jack Sheridan of Sheridan Law Firm, Allen’s lawyer. After more than five days, the Whatcom County jury came to a verdict.

“I am very happy with the Jury’s verdict and believe Justice has been served,” Allen said in a statement Friday.

WWU declined to comment.

As part of the investigation, Allen met with a federal investigator from the U.S. Department of Education who told her the use of “ghost courses” constituted fraud against the United States. But when she reported the agent’s statement to WWU management, she was pressured to remove the word “fraud” from the report, according to the news release.

When she wouldn’t remove it, WWU President Sabah Randhawa fired her.

At the trial, Randhawa admitted Allen’s refusal to remove the word “fraud” was one reason for the termination. The state of Washington was unable to produce any evidence that showed deficiencies to explain why Allen was fired, according to the news release.

The jury awarded Allen $631,442 in back pay, the amount of money she lost from the date she was fired to the beginning of the trial. She also received $867,964 in “front pay,” defined as the earnings she would have received for the rest of her life that she lost as a result of being fired. She was also awarded $1.5 million for emotional harm.

“She couldn’t find comparable work because she has to tell the truth and say, ‘I was fired,’ and you can’t be in the business she was in if you have any blemishes on your record at all,” Sheridan said. “They basically destroyed her ability as an auditor.”

Allen has worked 80-hour weeks as a seasonal tax expert for Intuit Turbo Tax since January 2021, making half or less of what she was making at WWU, Sheridan said.

“This is just one of those cases where the good guys won,” Sheridan said.

Allen was not the only employee fired. According to the Times’ investigation, there were a series of firings, turmoil and a “culture of fear” at WWU’s internal audit office.

Richard Chambers, who served as the president of the Institute of Internal Auditors at the time but has since stepped down, said this is one of the largest settlements he’s ever seen for this type of case. He said it feels appropriate given the “egregious circumstances” at WWU.

“The jury got it right,” Chambers said Friday. “You can’t have the kind of transparency that an internal audit office is supposed to deliver if management isn’t receptive and supportive of the work.

“If management isn’t receptive to the auditor’s work, then that is a failure of governance on all fronts.”