Philly school district may have to compensate official fired for tipping off newspaper on contract

The struggling School District of Philadelphia may have to pay damages to a former official who lost his job after speaking to the press about a $7.5 million no-bid security-camera contract.

A federal jury late Tuesday determined the district suspended Francis X. Dougherty and recommended he be fired in retaliation for his leaking allegations that former schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had steered the contract to IBS Communications Inc., a minority firm that wasn’t approved to do the work.

Dougherty, once the district’s deputy chief business officer, was awarded $3 in nominal damages, but a Philadelphia judge will decide March 31 what, if any, damages Dougherty is entitled to for his firing.

Dougherty, who was out of work for a year after the School Reform Commission voted to fire him in 2011, is seeking compensation for lost wages and attorney’s fees.

His lawyers, however, are already pleased with the case’s outcome.

Not only did the jury find that the district had retaliated against Dougherty for reaching out to reporters, but also, in doing so, had violated Dougherty’s First Amendment right to free speech.

“We’re enormously gratified,” said Lisa Matthewson. “He spoke out as a public servant to protect the taxpayers, and it’s important to all of us that public employees have the ability to do that.”

In a somewhat unusual twist, Joe Tucker, the school’s district’s attorney, called the verdict a “resounding victory.”

Tucker cited the nominal damages awarded to Dougherty and the fact that the jury also determined that that the district had not broken Pennsylvania’s whistle-blower law, which bars employers from retaliating against employees who allege wrongdoing.

“It is a shame that the resources of the school district, taking money away from students at this very dire time, because of the recklessness of the Inquirer, was caused to defend this case,” said Tucker.

Tucker said Dougherty lost his job, in part, for not cooperating with investigators hired to look into the IBS contract after Dougherty spoke to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Ackerman, who left the district in 2011 and died from pancreatic cancer in 2013, and former human resources executive Estelle Matthews were also defendants in the case.

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