A former college dean who says she was blackballed after suing the now-scuttled Globe University may have a second career as a whistleblower advocate.
Heidi Weber, who moved to the Twin Cities from South Dakota to become a Globe University dean only to be fired in 2011, was featured on the Aug. 31 episode of CBS-TV’s new series “Whistleblower.”
She was fired in 2011 as dean of the Medical Assistant Program overseeing all of Globe’s 16 campuses. Weber claimed the firing was retaliatory after she reported to her superiors that admissions officers were pressuring vulnerable students to sign up for the program—even if they were incapable of succeeding.
“She could hear them from where she was sitting making statements about job placement, transferability of credits and accreditation,” said Clayton Halunen, owner of the Halunen Law whistleblower firm that represented Weber. “She started to notice the very hard-sell tactics they were using.”
The company appeared to target poor students who were eligible for federal grants, loans and GI Bill funding, Halunen said. Weber made the same charge during Friday’s broadcast.
“It was a mess. There was no curriculum,” Weber said on the program. “I had students that couldn’t read. I had students that didn’t speak English. I’m supposed to be teaching them to save people’s lives and they can’t even add a two-digit number in their head.”
After complaining to her superiors, she says, she was warned to keep quiet and later got fired. Company officials cited poor job performance, Halunen said, but documentation showed she had recently received a strong review. Weber filed a wrongful termination suit under Minnesota’s whistleblower protection law in 2012.
Her case was brought just as reports about Globe were being received by the Minnesota attorney general’s office, Halunen said. Allina Health, for example, had stopped accepting Globe students in December 2010 because of its accreditation problems.
Halunen said he contacted the attorney general early on to see if they might work together. The AG’s office chose not to take on the individual termination case, he said.
However, Attorney General Lori Swanson, who also appeared on the TV program, did interview Weber. When the AG filed suit against the university, the ex-dean was one of Swanson’s key witnesses, Halunen said.
After Globe was denied summary judgment in Weber’s case, it declined to settle and drove the case to trial. Looking back, Halunen said, he is thankful Globe executives made that choice, which he characterized as “arrogant.”
“We’re all very happy,” he said. “I don’t know how they thought they were going to win with the evidence we had, but they believed that.”
Weber won her jury trial and subsequent appeals and finally secured nearly a $1 million settlement in 2015. Of that money, she kept about $400,000. The rest went to cover attorney fees and interest, Halunen said.
The trial jury believed Weber had blown the whistle on Globe for misleading students about its accreditation and the starting salaries graduates would earn. It also believed her claim that she reported students were not being honestly informed about their chances to score externships needed to graduate or the likelihood that they would face criminal background checks before getting hired to jobs.
Swanson also won her case. After a four-week trial in April 2016, a judge ruled that Globe violated both the Minnesota’s Consumer Fraud Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Afterward, the company went out of business, its access shut off to federal grants and loans.
He doesn’t know for sure, but Halunen believes that had Weber not prevailed, Swanson might not have pursued her own case and Globe might still be defrauding students.
“I am thankful for whistleblowers,” Halunen said Tuesday. “It takes courage because most of them end up being terminated as employees and their lives are changed forever. It is pretty amazing, the benefit to society that these people do.”
After she was fired, Halunen said, Weber had trouble finding other work. Eventually, a Twin Cities doctor hired her as a physician’s assistant—a return to the work she did before she became a college dean. But that doctor recently retired, leaving Weber once again unemployed, her attorney said.
But the television exposure might make all the difference for his client. Halunen said Weber performed well on TV and since Friday has fielded calls from various organizations that want her to do whistleblower advocacy work.
That work might include blogging, speaking at seminars or doing one-on-ones with would-be whistleblowers, he said. “She might be that person who other whistleblowers go to and get support and guidance as far as how to move forward with something like this,” the attorney said. “It is a very important decision for people to make before they jump in and move forward on this.”
His own law firm might be first in line to hire her, Halunen indicated.
“Let’s just say my firm has a national practice involving whistleblowing and we get cases around the country,” he said. ”Heidi might be the ideal kind of person that we might want for our law firm—someone who would advocate and be a resource for whistleblowers that we represent.”
Halunen said he his firm has class-action lawsuits underway against two other for-profit colleges with presence in Minnesota. However, they are in the early stages of litigation and he would not comment on them.
Friday’s “Whistleblower” broadcast can be viewed online here.