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Ex-Penn State President Spanier sues Freeh, PSU, law firm

Former Penn State President Graham D. Spanier filed a civil lawsuit against former FBI director Louis Freeh, Freeh's firms and the university today, accusing them of defamation in the Penn State-sponsored Freeh Report of 2012 for its findings related to Spanier's failure to stop ex-Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky from sexually abusing young boys at Sandusky's charity, the Second Mile. Sandusky was convicted and is serving a 60-year sentence.

Freeh's attorney, Robert Heim of Dechert LLP, Philadelphia, was not immediately available for comment on Spanier's suit. Spanier had previously rejected Freeh's conclusions and said he intended to sue, but had delayed filing while a separate state criminal complaint against Spanier advanced through the courts.

In an interview last week, Heim said Freeh stood by his report. "It's frustrating to sit here and have years go by and not be able to squarely challenge supposedly what is said" about Freeh and his report, Heim said at the time. The Freeh Report, Heim added, "is very much like Judge Freeh. It is direct, it's to the point, it sets forth his findings and it doesn't dance around the issues, which is what Penn State wanted." Penn State officials were not immediately available for comment on the suit.

In the 140-page complaint, filed in Centre County Common Pleas Court in Bellefonte, Pa., near Penn State's main campus, Spanier accused Freeh and his firms, Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan LLP and Freeh Group International Solutions LLC (both of which later combined with the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP), of having "knowingly and maliciously published numerous false and defamatory statements" about Spanier, who was Penn State's President from 1995-2011. Pepper officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Spanier calls "demonstrably false" allegations in the 267-page Freeh Report accusing Spanier of acting in "consistent disregard" of "the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims," of having "empowered" Sandusky to victimize children at Penn State, of having "granted him license to bring boys to campus for 'grooming as targets for his assaults," and having "repeatedly concealed Sandusky's abuse of children."

Spanier says he had only one "formal meeting" and little contact with Sandusky and was unaware that allegations against him in 1998 or 2001 rose to the level of criminal conduct until Sandusky was criminally indicted in 2011. Spanier noted accusations had earlier been investigated by authorities and no charges filed.

The Freeh report led to Spanier's departure as Penn State President. Spanier says in the suit he offered to resign after the Freeh report, but added that his departure was later wrongly depicted as a firing.

Spanier says Freeh made the defamation worse by expanding the allegations against Spanier, and the late football coach Joseph Paterno and other Penn State officials, on TV and through press releases and public relations professionals.

Spanier accuses Freeh of reaching his conclusions "with malice and reckless disregard for the truth," and basing the Freeh Report on "predetermined 'findings' and 'conclusions'" reached in cooperation with Penn State trustees and National Intercollegiate Athletic Association officials.

He alleges the Freeh Report "was drafted and largely finalized before Freeh ever interviewed Dr. Spanier," and added that their four-hour interview took place near the end of Freeh's investigation and not long before Freeh released the report in July 2012.

The lawsuit alleges Freeh traded on his reputation as a former federal judge and FBI Director (under President Bill Clinton) to give his report the weight of an impartial court opinion.

But Freeh's firm actually operated more as a private consultant responsible only to its paying clients, Spanier alleges. Its "so-called 'independent investigations'" and "investigative reports" were "custom tailored with preconceived storylines to meet his clients' objectives," according to the suit. Clients in crisis paid millions in fees (the suit says Penn State paid Freeh $8 million) "to identify one or more 'wrongdoers' (never Freeh's clients)" to blame for a crisis, and then "publicly declare the scandal resolved."

"Freeh's work has been called into question repeatedly," Spanier alleges, citing both reversals and criticisms of Freeh investigations by: the international soccer organization FIFA; a federal court reviewing a Freeh shareholder investigation for Wynn Resorts Ltd.; and by another federal court reviewing his report on fraud claims connected to the BP oil spill in Louisiana.

Spanier also blames the Penn State Freeh Report and resulting public pressure for sparking the state criminal case alleging Spanier participated in a criminal cover-up of Sandusky's crimes, a case that has stretched for more than two years without getting to trial.

And Spanier blames Freeh and his firm for "intentional interference" in Spanier's post-Penn State presidency career as an adviser to the federal government on national security issues.

Spanier, a sociologist, says he lost federal work because Freeh told federal authorities Spanier was not suited to do government business, even though Spanier said he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by a four-month Federal Investigative Service-led review.

Spanier says Freeh declined Spanier's offer to help review that exculpatory report or other information favorable to Freeh. He also notes that Freeh, while an executive of the crecit card bnak MBNA, visited Penn State in September 2005 and gave Spanier an autographed copy of Freeh's book, My FBI, citing Spanier's "leadership, vision and integrity."

Spanier accuses Penn State of violating his 2011 separation agreement. Spanier says he voluntarily stepped down from the top job, over objections from some of the trustees, and that Penn State had agreed to provide him with an office, office staff, expenses and legal fees, and not to make any "negative comments" about Spanier.

Instead, Spanier says Penn State has barred him from his office, publicized and encouraged negative statements about Spanier in the Freeh report, and scheduled press conferences at which Penn State officials including at least three trustees continued to make negative comments about Spanier "in breach of the contract."

Spanier wants "compensatory damages" for harm to his reputation and lost income, and says he also deserves "punitive damages" to punish Freeh for "knowingly publishing defamatory falsehoods" in order "to damage Dr. Spanier in furtherance of a highly lucrative business model."

Sandusky's incarceration and the rollback of penalties from the NCAA's consent decree with the university have not meant the end of the legal struggles for many of the scandal's key players.

Late coach Joe Paterno's family is suing the NCAA and two of its top officers. Two former assistant coaches, Jay Paterno, the coach's son, and William Kenney, along with a member of the board of trustees, are also participating in that suit.

Jay Paterno and Kenney have a separate suit against the university. Mike McQueary, the former assistant coach who testified to seeing Sandusky raping a young boy, is also suing the university, saying he was penalized as a whistleblower. And one of Sandusky's victims continues to pursue legal action against the school.

In an interview today, Jay Paterno said Spanier and his lieutenants, in all their dealings with his father, "were never anything but honest with me and fair." He added that growing criticism of the Freeh report will help vindicate Joe Paterno's reputation: "In July in 2012 the Freeh report was accepted as fact, and now we know better."

Contact Inquirer staff writer Jason Laughlin at 610-313-8114