Former research director sues over alleged retaliatory firing

Editor’s note: This case was dismissed on Sept. 11, 2014

A former research director says he was fired just weeks after he alerted GW’s legal office that a colleague was illegally trying to control at least $5 million in federal dollars.

In a lawsuit filed this month, John Lombardi, the former leader of GW’s Center for Preparedness and Resiliency, claimed GW “recklessly” fired him after he twice attempted to warn top officials about unethical and illegal handling of research grants.

The lawsuit marks the third accusation from former top officials against the University this academic year, who have claimed their supervisors retaliated against them for attempted whistle-blowing.

Lombardi, a 30-year armed forces member, alleges that Daniel Kaniewski, then the deputy director of GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, tried to take over his $5 million anti-terrorism training project in May 2012.

Lombardi reported that Kaniewski, who no longer works at GW, led the government-backed program without notifying GW’s partners – the federal government as well as tech giant Science Applications International Corporation – whose contracts were allegedly based on the premise that Lombardi would head the initiatives.

“Mr. Kaniewski’s plan became increasingly clear: After GW had used Mr. Lombardi’s credentials to obtain government contract dollars, GW would engage in a ‘bait and switch’ by removing him once the contracts were secured,” the lawsuit claims.

Lombardi was fired in July 2012, two months after raising the issue with his top supervisor, Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa, and weeks after speaking to the University’s Office of General Counsel. He is demanding $75,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress, Lombardi’s lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, said.

Lombardi said he met with Chalupa in May 2012, who dismissed his concerns about Kaniewski. While Lombardi claims his supervisor knew that substituting Kaniewski would violate federal law, he said Chalupa seemed unaware of any wrongdoing.

“It made it pretty clear to me that he didn’t have a clear picture about what was going on,” Lombardi told The Hatchet on Sunday. “If I were in his position, I wouldn’t believe that Dan or anyone would cook the books in front of him.”

He took his concerns to GW’s Office of General Counsel two weeks later, and an attorney “stated that she would look into the matter further.” But Lombardi claims the University lawyer never followed up with any action.

Jackie Bendall, the director of GW’s sponsored projects administration, knew that “misrepresenting or omitting material facts to the government” was against the law, Lombardi said. She allegedly told him the activity could “end with us wearing stripes.”

Lombardi went to the University’s Office of General Counsel again, and he claims the same attorney ignored him a second time.

He turned to his direct superior Frank Cilluffo, who told Lombardi he “went over our heads” with his meetings with the GW attorney and Chalupa.

The University hired Lombardi, a former colonel in the U.S. Army, in 2007. He completed his military career in the Pentagon as the director of a domestic emergency preparedness program. He claims he led grant-funded projects worth about $18 million over the course of his GW career.

He contends Kaniewski, whose background is in policy, had little knowledge of emergency preparedness training.

Lombardi argues that “through the deliberate inaction” of Chalupa, the Office of the General Counsel and Cilluffo, the University ignored his complaints about “illegal efforts” to replace him and allowed Kaniewski to mislead GW’s contract partners.

“GW knew … that Mr. Kaniewski was engaging in fraudulent conduct, and instead of preventing that conduct, retaliated against Mr. Lombardi for his whistle-blowing reports,” according to Lombardi’s complaint.

Lombardi alleges that Kaniewski tried to hide that the Center for Preparedness and Resiliency was bringing in new sources of funding, while Kaniewski’s own office failed to generate any revenue for fiscal year 2012, according to the complaint.

Both offices had been under financial pressure after a multi-year grant from the Department of Homeland Security dried up and University officials told them they would have to bring in enough funding to be self-sufficient by the end of fiscal year 2013.

Two months after speaking with Chalupa, Kaniewski fired Lombardi because “no outside funding had been generated to support his position,” though the University allegedly said it would fund the center fully for the following year and then partially for one year after that.

“They had more time to come up with independent money,” Bernabei added. “If they had kept him on these projects, they would have been able to raise this money very easily.”

Kaniewski and Cilluffo did not return requests for comment. University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard declined to comment, citing GW’s policy to not comment on pending litigation. Jackie Bendall also declined to comment.

This post was updated Oct. 28, 2013 to reflect the following:

Correction appended
The Hatchet misspelled the name of John Lombardi’s lawyer. Her last name is Bernabei, not Barnabei.

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