Penn State alumni trustees attack Freeh investigation into Jerry Sandusky scandal
In many ways, it’s a summary of the claims that Penn State defenders have previously made in the years since the scandal broke, but this time with material from Freeh’s investigation that they say bolsters their view.
A report compiled by longstanding critics of Louis Freeh’s 2012 investigation into the sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University asserts that the former FBI director didn’t have the evidence to blame the school’s football "culture” as he did, much less prove that its leaders knew of or conspired to cover up Jerry Sandusky’s attacks on children.
“The Freeh Report assigns nefarious reasons for the failures of Penn State officials and the community to identify Sandusky as a pedophile,” says the 109-page document, completed last year and obtained this month by the Inquirer. “Our full, fair, and thorough review of investigative materials indicates that a more accurate interpretation is that Sandusky, like all pillar of the community offenders, fooled the entire community.”
The report, signed by seven alumni-elected members of the school’s board of trustees, attempts to make its case by highlighting emails and handwritten comments by investigators that seem to question the report’s conclusions and Freeh’s motivation, evidence that they say was ignored or never shared, a list of key people Freeh’s team never interviewed, and questions the interviewers couldn’t answer.
In many ways, it’s a summary of the claims that Penn State defenders have made in the years since the scandal broke, this time with material from Freeh’s investigation that they say bolsters their view. For years, they have challenged prosecutors’ suggestions that head football coach Joe Paterno and school administrators may have ignored a serial predator in their midst. They seethed at the NCAA sanctions, fumed at Freeh’s report, and ran en masse for alumni seats on the board.
When they got elected, they sued the university and won access to the hundreds of thousands of interview notes and documents that Freeh, also a former judge, used to prepare his report, then spent hundreds of hours poring over them.
Penn State’s leadership criticized the release of the report, and Freeh dismissed it as inconsequential, biased, and inaccurate, a misguided attempt to turn back the clock and exonerate the university and its former leaders — since convicted of endangerment — for not stopping Sandusky years earlier.
“The deniers continue to embarrass the many thousands of outstanding Penn State students, faculty, and alumni by blindly disregarding the uncontroverted facts in favor of a misguided agenda,” Freeh said in a statement.
Its release continues what has been an unending battle for those who believe that the former Penn State leaders perhaps made some misjudgments about how to handle Sandusky but did nothing intentionally wrong, and that a vaunted football program was scapegoated.
Even its airing has been contentious. A judge gave the alumni trustees access to Freeh’s records but warned them that he would cite them for contempt if they shared the information beyond the board.
After the university leadership sat on the report, given to them last summer, alumni trustee and Chester County businessman Anthony Lubrano bought ads in the Centre Daily Times and paid for a plane to fly over Beaver Stadium during football games pulling a banner that asked Penn State president Eric Barron, "What are you hiding? Release the Report!”
In a statement to the Inquirer, Barron and Mark Dambly, chair of the trustees board, said the report “does not represent the position or opinions of the Penn State Board of Trustees or the university in any way.” They called its release a “reprehensible” step that would undermine a culture where Penn State employees can confidentially report wrongdoing.
The alumni trustees — Lubrano, Alice Pope, Barbara Doran, Robert Jubelirer, Ted Brown, Ryan McCombie, and Bill Oldsey — denied violating the court order, but said the community would benefit from knowing their findings.
“The fact is the board’s tacit acceptance of the Freeh Report led to profound reputational damage, along with over $250 million in costs so far to Penn State,” they said in a statement. It urged the university to “openly and thoughtfully” consider their review "so that we can finally come to an honest conclusion.”
They want the 38-member board to repudiate the Freeh Report and recoup the $8.3 million paid for it.
A scandal begins
Freeh was hired in the weeks after a grand jury indicted Sandusky in November 2011 for sexually abusing boys and accused former athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz of failing to report his misconduct and lying under oath. Graham B. Spanier, the longtime Penn State president who lost his job in the scandal, was similarly charged a year later.
Freeh’s scathing report came out weeks after Sandusky’s conviction. “The most saddening finding …,” the 162-page report said, “is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
He described it as “reasonable” to conclude that Penn State leaders concealed Sandusky’s actions to avoid bad publicity out of, among other factors, “a culture of reverence for the football program.”
For Penn State, the consequences were far-reaching: Crushing NCAA punishments, more than $100 million in fines, and victim restitution. Curley and Schultz pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment, and Spanier was convicted on the same charge, which he is appealing.
The Freeh Report also offered scores of recommendations the university adopted for training, crime reporting, and other procedures.
The alumni trustees question just about everything in Freeh’s report, including those reforms, asserting they were based on faulty assumptions.
They contend Freeh started the investigation like a prosecutor trying to build a case rather than with an open mind, and harbored a preconceived notion that the case had parallels to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal and thus expected to find a cover-up.
They said they found nothing in the records to prove Penn State leaders ignored or covered up Sandusky’s abuse to avoid publicity, or that the school’s “football culture” deserved blame. They highlighted a handwritten comment — “No evidence at all!” — one Freeh team investigator scrawled next to a passage that suggested athletic department employees might fear for their jobs if they reported misconduct. That section wasn’t included in Freeh’s final draft.
The alumni trustees conclude that Freeh’s report wrongly portrayed an investigator’s interview with Spanier, left out facts that might have raised credibility questions about witnesses, and had an incomplete picture because his team didn’t interview key subjects, including Schultz, Curley, and Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who reported seeing Sandusky assault a boy in a locker-room shower in 2001.
They also questioned whether Freeh was conflicted at the time because he might have been trying to get hired as part of the NCAA’s investigative arm. The NCAA used Freeh’s report in deciding to place sanctions on the university. Not long after, a member of Freeh’s team noted in an email: “It appears we have [NCAA president Mark] Emmert’s attention now,” according to the trustees’ report. Freeh responded: “Let’s try to meet with him and make a deal — a very good cost contract to be the NCAA’s go-to investigators. …”
The trustees’ review dismisses as inconclusive the most damning evidence cited in Freeh’s report — emails that suggest Spanier, Curley, and Schultz decided not to report McQueary’s account, but instead confronted Sandusky and forbade him from bringing boys on campus.
“The only downside for us,” Spanier wrote the others in February 2001, “is if the message isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it.”
The alumni trustees contended the emails “were not definitive” proof Penn State administrators knew Sandusky had harmed children. They cite a Freeh team investigator’s note on that point — “What evidence that they knew it was more than horseplay?” — although they don’t specify when that note was written.
Freeh said he had not seen the alumni trustees’ full report, but responded to key points the Inquirer shared with him. He noted the court convictions and other legal rulings that he said bolster his findings, and called his critics “a gang of deniers” who delivered a “misguided, tilted, dishonest and biased” report.
And although Spanier was acquitted of conspiring to commit child endangerment — a point his supporters like to note — Freeh pointed to public comments from juror Victoria Navazio, who said jurors may not have been convinced the men were scheming to endanger children, but did feel they were conspiring to protect Penn State.
On campus, questions remain
Seven years and countless reports later, the university has by many measures put the scandal behind it. Fund-raising is strong, as are student applications. Yet some continue to wonder whether the university was treated fairly during its most infamous chapter.
Kim Steiner, director of Penn State’s arboretum, was among about 30 professors from a cross-section of disciplines who questioned the Freeh Report’s findings in an August 2012 letter and still aren’t convinced university administrators deserved the blame.
“It wasn’t an emotional thing,” Steiner said this month. “We read this thing as scholars, and some of it just doesn’t add up.”
Others said they were on the fence about whether the trustees’ review of Freeh’s analysis would help Penn State.
“Even though there’s a sense of justice in us that says we should not allow incorrect or partly correct things to go unchallenged,” said Scott Kretchmar, professor emeritus of exercise and sports science, “the greater good is served by moving on.”