Court: ISU worker didn’t prove whistleblower claim

IOWA CITY – A former Iowa State University employee was the victim of a long and vicious harassment campaign by superiors, but he failed to prove that their actions came in response to his exposing his boss’ financial misconduct, a court ruled Wednesday.

The Iowa Court of Appeals rejected a jury’s finding that former ISU College of Engineering marketing employee Dennis Smith was the victim of whistleblower retaliation, throwing out a landmark $784,000 award in his favor.

But the court said Iowa State did intentionally inflict emotional distress on Smith through the actions of his superiors, which included false accusations to campus police that Smith was a security threat and potential mass murderer, and attempts to force him out. The court upheld the jury’s $500,000 award for Smith on that claim.

Smith, 60, said he disagreed with the court’s reading of Iowa’s whistleblower statute, saying it was so narrow that it would offer little protection to employees who report wrongdoing. He pledged to ask the Iowa Supreme Court to review that issue.

“It is open season on whistleblowers if this ruling stands,” he said.

ISU’s general counsel, Paul Tanaka, said the school was grateful that the whistleblower claim was vacated, but troubled that the other was upheld.

“We don’t believe it’s factually or legally sound,” he said, adding the school will consult with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in determining whether to appeal.

A key issue Wednesday was whether Smith’s employers retaliated against him for his 2007 report of financial misconduct by his supervisor, Pamela Reinig, to then-ISU President Greg Geoffroy. Smith’s report prompted Geoffroy to order an audit that found Reinig had kept $58,000 from an outside organization for work done by the college, instead of depositing payments in an ISU account. Reinig resigned and was criminally prosecuted.