by Geoff Rushton
What were Penn State’s motivations for placing Mike McQueary on administrative leave, and did a statement from former university president Graham Spanier defame the former Penn State football assistant?
Those questions were at the heart of the testimony in McQueary’s lawsuit against Penn State on Tuesday, the second day of the trial. Jurors heard from former Penn State general counsel Cynthia Baldwin, former vice president for university relations Bill Mahon and former assistant athletic director Mark Sherburne, who briefly served as acting AD.
Baldwin testified that she was first approached by President Rodney Erickson, who became president after Spanier was removed in November 2011, about placing McQueary on administrative leave. She said Erickson was concerned about McQueary’s safety.
She said she had received calls from Penn State Police and the Athletic Department that they had received death threats against McQueary after he was identified as the unnamed graduate assistant in the grand presentment against Jerry Sandusky who in 2001 witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in a locker room shower.
McQueary reported the incident to Joe Paterno, who in turn reported it to athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. They later met with McQueary. Curley and Schultz, who were charged in connection with an alleged concealment of Sandusky’s activities, dispute that McQueary told them he had witnessed something sexual in nature. They along with Spanier are still awaiting trial on failure to report and child endangerment charges.
Baldwin has played a central role in the criminal cases against the three administrators. Perjury, conspiracy and obstruction charges were dismissed after state Superior Court ruled Baldwin’s own testimony would be inadmissible in their prosecution and that the three men thought she was representing them individually, not the university, when they testified before the investigating grand jury.
Baldwin said the university received “violent reports about what people were going to do,” to McQueary and ohers after Sandusky and the administrators were charged She said for the safety of McQueary and others the decision was made to keep him from coaching in Penn State’s remaining games for the 2011 season and to place him on paid administrative leave. University police told her and Erickson that they didn’t’ believe adequate security could be provided to protect McQueary.
Mahon also testified about an email to university administrators briefing them on threats received by university phone operators, in particular a bomb threat for the Penn State-Nebraska game on Nov. 12, 2011.
Baldwin said that after McQueary was kept from coaching in the Penn State-Nebraska game, Sherburne, who served as acting athletic director for just over a week, informed McQueary he had been placed on administrative leave, reading from a script prepared by Baldwin at Sherburne’s request. Sherburne testified he was not involved in making the decision. He said that in scheduling the meeting, McQueary “may have asked” if he should have an attorney with him and Sherburne relayed what he was told by Baldwin that McQueary would not be asked to sign anything.
McQueary was told he would receive full pay and benefits during that time and that his future status had not been determined.
At the meeting, McQueary told Baldwin, “I want the university to know I didn’t do anything wrong and I really want to coach here,” she testified.
She said she wrote the contract for new head coach Bill O’Brien in January 2012 and it was clear O’Brien intended to replace the existing staff with his own assistant coaches. McQueary has argued that he was the only staff member not given a chance to interview with O’Brien. Baldwin testified about a severance clause McQueary and others received in 2008, which provided for salary for 18 months should the assistants lose their positions if a new head coach was hired.
McQueary’s contract expired on June 30, 2012 and Baldwin said she was unsure if McQueary received the severance payments because she left the general counsel position shortly after. In opening arguments on Monday, Penn State attorney Nancy Conrad said he did receive the severance payments.
McQueary, a wide receivers coach from 2004-2011, is suing Penn State for $4 million in lost wages and other damages on claims that Penn State retaliated against him for cooperating with prosecutors in the investigation of Sandusky, as well as defamation and misrepresentation.
Mahon, the university’s chief spokesman in 2011, testified about the statement issued by Spanier as well as media coverage of the charges against Sandusky and the Penn State administrators and threats received by the university.
McQueary attorney Elliot Strokoff’s questioning centered on the wide dissemination of the statement, in which Spanier expressed support for Curley and Schultz and called the charges against them “groundless.” Strokoff noted the statement was posted on the university’s main website, shared with media and possibly sent on the university’s email newswire.
McQueary is arguing that the statement defamed him by implying that it was the administrators, and not McQueary, who were truthful about the 2001 incident.
Mahon said the statement was Spanier’s opinion and that Mahon’s input involved suggesting the addition of the first paragraph expressing concern for Sandusky’s victims, alleged at the time.
“It was not my job to make a statement like this,” Mahon said. “It was written as the opinion of the president.”
Both Mahon and Baldwin said McQueary was not mentioned or referenced in discussions about the statement.
Baldwin, who was in the meeting along with then board chair Steve Gaban, when the statement was discussed, testified that Spanier’s statements of support were based on the former president’s experience of knowing and working with the two men over 16 years.
Mahon added that he agreed with public information director Lisa Powers that the later addition of statements of innocence by the attorneys for the two administrators was “out of character” for the university but that Spanier instructed them to do so.
Baldwin, meanwhile, testified that Spanier’s statement of support had been shared in advance with the administrators’ attorneys, Caroline Roberto and Tom Farrell.
Spanier made similar statements of support at athletic department staff meetings the Monday following the charges, and according to Sherburne, said he expected Curley would return to his role as AD.
Conrad, meanwhile, largely focused on media coverage Mahon’s office monitored. She cited media reports around the same day as Spanier’s Nov. 5 statement that did not mention McQueary by name.
She then exhibited media accounts from subsequent days, after McQueary had been reported as the unnamed graduate assistant. One was headlined “McQueary deserves jail time,” while a Washington Post article said McQueary could have put an end to Sandusky’s abuse in 2001.
Penn State is seeking to show that Spanier’s statement did not reference McQueary and was not defamatory, and further claim that it was McQueary’s own actions and perceived responsibility that have harmed his reputation.
Testimony is expected to resume at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.