Caltech professor sues school over her disclosures to FBI

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A physics professor at Caltech is suing the school, claiming the school retaliated against her after she told the FBI about possible illegal activities at the university-managed NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (KABC)

A physics professor at the California Institute of Technology is suing the school, claiming the school retaliated against her after she told the FBI about possible illegal activities at the university-managed NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Dr. Sandra Troian was conducting cutting-edge research at NASA's JPL, but she said that all changed.

"The door closed abruptly on me," she said at a news conference in Pasadena on Thursday.

Troian is suing Caltech, claiming the university violated its own whistleblower policy when it retaliated against her for cooperating with federal investigators.

"I want my name cleared and I want to regain the freedom to get back to my work that I love to do," she said.

Troian said she notified Caltech administrators in 2010 that one of her assistants shared classified research data with an acquaintance in Israel and posted it on a public website without permission.

Despite Troian's repeated requests to take away the researcher's files and fire him, she said administrators did not take any action. At the time, the school's multibillion-dollar contract with NASA to run the lab was up for renewal, according to the lawsuit.

Troian eventually took the researcher off the project, but he remained on campus.

Two years later, the FBI started investigating Troian's claims as part of a larger investigation into export law violations and possible spying. She said university administrators punished her for cooperating with the FBI.

Troian's attorney Dan Stormer said Caltech administrators were worried that Troian would jeopardize the university's contract with NASA to manage the lab.

"So their motive was to protect their backsides. Their motive was to assure they got this $8 billion contract," Stormer said.

But the university has a different take.

In a written statement, Caltech spokeswoman Judy Asbury said the lawsuit is meritless. The statement said, in part, that Troian "was dissatisfied with the outcome of a recent internal campus investigation into her decision to list her cat as the author of a published abstract" and she "suffered no retaliation and remains an active faculty member of the institute."

A spokeswoman for JPL said the lab is confident that no violations occurred.

Stormer said the suit seeks to restore Troian's reputation and "the potential she has for the future." It asks the court to issue an injunction ensuring Caltech stops all disciplinary actions and seeks damages related to loss of future earnings and emotional distress.

Stormer said the government investigation continues, as far as he's aware, and could take years to complete.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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