Two big questions about the Globe-MSB whistleblower lawsuit

What swayed the jurors?(SalFalko via Flickr)

Here are a couple of key questions springing from last week’s verdict in the Globe University / Minnesota School of Business whistleblower case involving former dean Heidi Weber.

I’ve touched on the answers in my main story and chat with Tom Crann of MPR’s All Things Considered, but thought I’d combine them here.

Q: What swayed jurors to believe that Globe had unjustly fired Weber?

I was able to talk to a few jurors after the trial. They said Globe officials didn’t seem consistent in their explanations of why they fired her.

Juror Jake Mehsikomer, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering major at Minnesota State University – Mankato, said Globe’s story at the beginning of the trial was that Weber’s firing was not based on her performance. But by the end, he said, its executives had changed that story and questioned her competence.

“That was one of the biggest red flags,” he said.

One juror who didn’t want to give her name said it troubled her that the deposition testimony of several Globe executives contradicted what they said on the stand during the trial.

She said she could “see holes” in their stories when she examined them more closely, and that on the stand they appeared to be “scrambling to keep their stories straight.”

Figuring out which alleged violations jurors found credible was tougher to gauge. The verdict didn’t break things down allegation by allegation. It merely stated Weber had reported real or perceived legal violations in good faith, and that the reports played a role in her termination.

But Mehsikomer said Globe’s statements to students about the transferability of Globe credits to other schools “was huge” in his eyes. Globe officials testified that they always told students it’s up to other colleges to decide how many Globe credits to accept. But it bothered Mehsikomer that school officials had worked out only a handful of transfer agreements with other colleges.

He said lack of hard data for things such as job-placement rates and starting salaries for graduates made it difficult to prove whether Globe officials were deceiving students. But he said he found Weber’s complaints about Globe’s misrepresentation of those items believable.

The way Mehsikomer saw it, the school expected students to read the fine print in such matters — something that didn’t quite sit right with him.

Other alleged violations were a mixed bag.

Mehsikomer seemed ambivalent about Weber’s allegation that Globe executives continued to enroll students in its medical assistant program when it knew it had a shortage of training sites for them.

He said the shortage was “something [executives] should have seen coming,” but noted that the school did make”big efforts” to correct the matter. Mehsikomer said he considered the problem an honest mistake, although the school didn’t “go about it the right way.”

Deciding whether Weber raised clear red flags for Globe executives was one of the most difficult decisions, said jury forman Lori Bestler, who described herself as a Forest Lake “mind coach.”

Globe has maintained that Weber never came right out and warned executives in person or in emails that they were breaking the law. Its attorney says Weber supported the company and only began raising bogus concerns as a way to disguise her own shortcomings in her job.

Mehsikomer saw it differently.

“Toward the beginning, [the problems] were something she wanted to fix,” he said. But after months of Globe inaction, he said, Weber “felt she needed to make a stand.”

In her final meetings with Globe managers, he said, she clearly warned them.

Q: How will the verdict affect how Globe does business?

Globe attorney Matthew Damon says the verdict changes nothing.

He said he’s going to request a new trial, and if that fails, will ask for an appeal:

“We feel very strongly that there was a lot of irrelevant and prejudicial evidence and argument put in front of them, and that had to taint their deliberations.”

Globe faces a jury trial early next year in a second whistleblower suit from former business dean Jeanne St. Claire, who is also represented by Weber’s attorney Clayton Halunen.

Damon said he doubts last week’s verdict will affect that one:

“The two are unrelated, which is why we objected to Ms. St. Claire testifying in the Weber case in the first place. Globe takes very seriously the allegation of any sort of wrong within their programs, and they take very seriously the notion that they should safeguard quality for the benefit of students. So I don’t see the attitude towards the St. Claire or the Weber case changing as a result of [the] verdict.”

Nor did he think Globe would change any of its practices based on the jury’s findings so far.

“Globe is always looking to improve, and certainly will continue to do that. Today’s verdict doesn’t change that commitment, so I don’t know that it poses a major new direction.”

If the jury’s verdict stands, Globe will have to pay Weber almost $400,000. Halunen said he’s going to ask for about another $500,000 in attorney’s fees.

When I asked Damon what effect that would have on the bottom line, he said:

“The issue for Globe is not the money.”

As I reported last summer, in the 2010-11 school year, Globe-MSB brought in more than $125 million in federal, state and private grants and loans to students.

(Note: After Damon said the issue was “not about the money,” he said: “It’s the suggestion that there’s been some sort of wrongdoing in the programs. Obviously, they’re going to defend their right to safeguard the quality of their programs, and that’s really what’s at issue here.”)