PHILADELHIA (The Philadelphia Inquirer) — In April 2007, more than two dozen Penn State football players forced their way into an off-campus party and started a brawl in which several people were injured, resulted in criminal charges against six team members, and, eventually, convictions for two.
On campus, the incident sparked another fight, one pitting athletic department officials against university administrators in a heated debate over how best to punish those involved.
In the end, football won out. None of the charged players missed a game, despite objections from the university vice president who oversaw student conduct and Penn State’s judicial affairs office.
That incident five years ago has attracted new interest from investigators, led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, probing the university’s role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
According to sources interviewed by the Freeh group in recent months, investigators asked about that fight, the response of head football coach Joe Paterno, and whether university officials had intervened in any other disciplinary crises involving student athletes.
Their questions suggest that Freeh’s final assessment will delve well beyond the Sandusky case and into the influence that figures such as Paterno exerted on university decision-making.
The Freeh report was promised this summer. Penn State president Rodney Erickson and others have said they expect a report before the end of this month.
Penn State’s trustees hired Freeh in November to investigate the university’s handling of previous allegations against Sandusky, who was convicted last month on 45 counts of child sex abuse.
Two top administrators - athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, a former vice president in charge of the campus police - await trial on charges that they did not report one of those accusations and later lied about it to a grand jury.
The fallout also led to the ouster of Paterno and Penn State President Graham B. Spanier, whom trustees blamed for not doing more at the time.
In a news conference announcing his investigation last year, Freeh said that his primary goal would be “to rectify such failure of leadership . . . in Penn State that allowed anyone to prey on children with impunity.”
According to sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements, Freeh’s group quickly homed in on the relationship between Old Main, the building that houses campus administrators, and the Lasch Building, the football program’s headquarters.
Over the past seven months, those sources said, investigators, have interviewed more than 400 people including current and former university trustees and all levels of athletic department personnel.
They have combed over old emails, files, and student discipline records and have been a nearly constant presence in athletic offices. Their work has already changed the course of ongoing criminal investigations.
Earlier this year, the Freeh group gave state prosecutors copies of a previously undisclosed email exchange between Spanier, Curley, and Schultz that indicated the three debated and ultimately decided against reporting a 2001 allegation of abuse against Sandusky.
Their search has also turned up legal billings from the university’s outside counsel that year for consultations on Penn State’s legal obligations in reporting alleged abuse, the sources said.
But the focus on Spanier, Paterno, and the university’s response to the 2007 off-campus brawl suggests that Freeh’s investigators are examining potential correlations between the handling of that incident and the response to allegations surrounding Sandusky.
Along with the criminal charges filed in the brawl case, 15 players were found to have violated the student code of conduct. Only four players were suspended, and only through the summer semester. All were allowed to return early for the start of fall practice.
Paterno devised his own punishment: having the whole team clean Beaver Stadium after a home game.
Vicky Triponey, then the university’s vice president of student affairs, balked at the head coach’s response. As Penn State’s top administrator over the university’s judicial conduct board, her office should have had authority to determine the players’ punishment, she said at the time.
She has previously accused Paterno of granting the athletes involved preferential treatment and interfering with her investigation. But in 2007, her objections were shot down.
Triponey, who declined comment for this story, , was interviewed extensively by Freeh’s investigators and gave them several e-mails she kept after resigning shortly after the brawl, according to sources close to the investigation.
The week she left her job, in September 2007, the university changed its policy to allow coaches and club advisers - not the judicial affairs board - to determine whether students facing school sanctions should be eligible to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports.
Before Paterno died in January, his attorney described Triponey’s account of the 2007 brawl as taken “out of context, misleading, and filled with inaccuracies.”
Spanier, who has turned down repeated requests to comment, has refused to be interviewed by the Freeh group unless he is allowed to review his old emails first. He is suing the university for access.
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Last year, some factions of Penn State’s faculty senate questioned whether Freeh’s probe would provide a truly independent assessment of the university’s failings.
That concern continues.
But Larry Cata Backer, the body’s president and an international affairs professor, said Friday he was hopeful the Freeh group’s findings would take into account not only the past actions of athletics officials but also of university trustees.
“We’re hoping it’s another step in getting some closure for this whole scandal,” he said.
Freeh has not said when his group will release its findings.
In a statement posted earlier this month on the board of trustees’ website, Karen B. Peetz, chairman of the board, said the university’s trustees “eagerly await” Freeh’s findings.
They “will allow us to take even more important steps towards accountability, healing and making our campuses as safe as possible,” she said.
©2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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