Testimony in the federal fraud trial of former Temple University business school dean Moshe Porat concluded Monday with a flurry of last-minute witnesses as notable for who appeared on the witness stand as for who did not.
Prosecutors rested their case early in the day without calling Marjorie O’Neill, the former Temple administrator who oversaw the Fox School of Business’ annual submissions to national rankings publications like U.S. News and World Report.
O’Neill pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges earlier this year, admitting that under orders from Porat, she had falsified the school’s data for years so it could fraudulently achieve a No. 1 ranking for its online MBA program. And with a plea deal that required her to testify if needed against her former boss, her account was expected to be central to the government’s case.
Prosecutors offered no explanation in court Monday for their decision to not call her to the stand.
There was also a conspicuous hole by the end of the day in the defense’s list of witnesses. U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert shot down Porat’s efforts to have another federal judge in the same Philadelphia courthouse — U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky, one of the former dean’s longtime friends — testify on his behalf.
Pappert scoffed at the unusual request to have one of his colleagues testify for a defendant in a criminal case and rejected the defense suggestion that it could question Slomsky in front of the jury without identifying him as a judge.
“Just Joel from Philly, yo?” Pappert quipped before shooting the defense gambit down.
Despite those notable absences, Porat’s lawyers spent the day presenting a bevy of character witnesses — former colleagues, Fox professors, students, and personal friends — who all vouched for the former dean’s integrity with testimony that comprised a defense case that lasted only a matter of hours.
Jurors are expected to return to court Monday for closing arguments and to begin their deliberations in a case that, over seven days of proceedings, has peeled back the curtain on the high-stakes world of college rankings.
The rankings are the subject of fierce competition among universities as top spots on the lists can attract nationwide interest from potential students and millions in tuition dollars. And Porat, government witnesses have testified, was obsessed with putting Temple at No. 1.
Prosecutors allege that obsession led him to commit fraud by conspiring with O’Neill and others to lie on its submissions to U.S. News and World Report and other rankings publications.
It worked. But once the inaccurate information was exposed in 2018, U.S. News removed Fox from its lists and Porat was fired from his role as dean, the school’s students and donors were left cheated, prosecutors say.
Ara Sardabegians — the manager of capital investments for the U.S. Postal Service, and a 2017 online MBA graduate and the government’s final witness on Monday — told jurors he sued the school after the rankings falsehoods were exposed, feeling as if he’d overpaid for what he’d been told was a top-ranking degree.
“I could have just gone to any university,” he said. “I’m still a little bitter and hurt by the situation … I still kind of feel like today that I’ve been bamboozled.”
Porat’s defense witnesses cast doubt on the idea that the former dean was capable of committing such an elaborate fraud. They cast his unrelenting obsession with rankings not as a flaw, but a drive to ensure Temple’s business school received the national respect he thought it deserved.
“I’ve seen five deans come and go,” said Arvind Phatak, a retired Fox professor who worked under Porat. “I called all the other deans paperweights who just sat in the chair and did nothing. Moshe was a visionary, a forward thinker, always asking, ‘What can I do to give the business school the reputation it deserves?’ ”
Larry Kaiser, the former CEO of Temple University Health System and Dean of Temple’s Katz School of Medicine, told jurors that during his time as dean, his school — presumably like Porat’s — had to share the data it was sending to rankings agencies with an internal university committee that was supposed to review them before each school could submit them to publications like U.S. News.
As for Porat, Kaiser added, he was so well-respected before the rankings scandal erupted that others were throwing around his name as a potential candidate to replace university President Richard M. Englert, who retired last year.
“That said a lot to me” about his character, Kaiser said.
Throughout the trial, Porat’s attorneys have contended that the former dean knew nothing about the false data his school was submitting and have blamed O’Neill, whom Porat has blamed in video depositions played in court, for “going rogue” and “manipulating the data.”
Outside the presence of the jury, defense lawyer Michael A. Schwartz urged Pappert to dismiss the case before jury deliberations, arguing that without testimony from O’Neill, the government hadn’t provided any direct proof that Porat had ordered her to lie.
“We’re missing Mrs. O’Neill,” Schwartz said. “I’d have no argument … if she [had] testified that she acted on a direct order from Dr. Porat. But for whatever reason the government chose not to call her” as a witness.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff shot back, maintaining that even without her testimony, they’d offered more than enough evidence from other witnesses that Porat controlled every aspect of the rankings submissions from the Fox school.
“There has been testimony that the defendant acted like a dictator,” he said. “And there was nothing in regard to the rankings he did not control.”
Pappert is expected to rule on the defense motion before handing the case to the jury next week.