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Mike McQueary v. Penn State: Day One

Mike McQueary’s trial against Penn State began Monday at the Centre County courthouse in Bellefonte after a drawn-out hiatus since specially-presiding Judge Thomas Gavin heard preliminary arguments in March 2013. McQueary served as a graduate assistant football coach at Penn State in 2001.

In February 2001, McQueary allegedly saw former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the shower of the Lasch Building’s support staff locker room. McQueary says he reported the incident to then-head coach Joe Paterno, who spoke to then-Athletic Director Tim Curley and then-Vice President for Finance & Business Gary Schultz. Curley and Schultz have denied such claims, and both are currently awaiting trial (along with former Penn State President Graham Spanier) on charges for failure to report suspected abuse and endangering the welfare of children, which are second and first degree misdemeanors, respectively.

Sandusky was ultimately convicted on 45 counts related to child sexual abuse.

McQueary started working as an assistant coach under Paterno after his graduate assistnatship but was placed on paid administrative leave shortly after Sandusky’s grand jury presentment was released in Nov. 2011. In 2012, McQueary’s contract expired and he was not rehired under new head coach Bill O’Brien. This is where the details get a little blurry between opening statements from McQueary’s and Penn State’s attorneys.

Here’s what you should know about why McQueary is now suing Penn State for more than $4 million in damages:

  1. Whistleblower: McQueary claims Penn State fired him for cooperating with the Attorney General’s Office in its investigation of Sandusky, stating the university retaliated against him by denying him the opportunity to interview with O’Brien. Penn State maintains McQueary was simply not needed on O’Brien’s coaching staff, therefore his contract was not renewed when it expired.
  2. Defamation: McQueary claims a statement Penn State released from former President Graham Spanier damaged his reputation and inhibited his ability to gain further employment, as a football coach or otherwise. The statement expressed Spanier’s “unconditional support” for Curley and Schultz and confidence in their integrity after they were charged with failing to report and lying to the grand jury about what McQueary told them. McQueary says this implies his statements to the grand jury were false, while Penn State says because Spanier never expressly mentioned McQueary, the statement should not be considered defamatory.
  3. Misrepresentation: McQueary claims Curley and Schultz told him the 2001 incident would be properly investigated when he reported it to them, therefore he did not feel the need to report it further. Now, McQueary says Curley and Schultz misrepresented to him what actions they would take on the matter.

After opening statements explaining all of this background info and giving an overview of the arguments to come, McQueary’s counsel called the trial’s first witness Jonell Eshbach. Eshbach was a member of the Blue Band and graduated from Penn State as an undergrad in 1984 and from the Dickinson School of Law in 1987. She worked for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office in March 2009, when she was assigned to the grand jury investigation of the Sandusky case.

Eshbach testified she received a tip to speak with McQueary in Dec. 2010 that “kicked [the investigation] into high gear.” She also commended McQueary for his clear memory and recollection of the 2001 incident. “Mike McQueary was by far the best civilian — by that, I mean not law enforcement — witness I ever had,” Eshbach said.

Besides identifying various legal documents and explaining the concept of a grand jury, Eshbach was questioned mainly on communications she had with McQueary throughout the grand jury proceedings, including a message McQueary sent her explaining he felt his words were “slightly twisted” in the presentment. Eshbach said this was all part of the editing process and the presentment maintained the original intent of McQueary’s words.

The next witness called was Fran Ganter, a former assistant football coach under Paterno (1973-2003) and associated athletic director under Curley (2003-2012). Ganter reviewed the various performance evaluations he prepared about McQueary during his time as an assistant coach. “I can’t thing of anything negative, to be honest with you,” he said of McQueary’s evaluations.

Ganter realized something was going on when investigators from the Attorney General’s Office toured the Lasch Building. “I realized something happened there just by the way they sprung into action,” he said of the investigators’ behavior when they reached the support staff locker room where the 2001 incident allegedly occurred.

After the presentment was released, Ganter recalled a meeting with Spanier and the entire intercollegiate athletics staff where Spanier advised the staff to stick together and that they were going to do the right thing. He also discussed O’Brien’s intent to “clean house” regarding coaching staff and his own attempts to connect McQueary with another coaching job by calling football programs at Temple and Miami.

The next witness, Wendell Courtney, was Penn State’s outside general counsel beginning in 1995. He explained a phone call with Schultz regarding McQueary’s allegations of the 2001 event and said his recommendation was to report the information to the Department of Public Welfare. He said he does not recall concluding the incident would be covered by mandated reporting policies, and agreed with prior assertions from other administrators that he did not imagine anything along the lines of sexual assault when “horseplay” was reported to him.

Finally, Penn State Director of News & Media Relations Lisa Powers discussed the statement in question by Spanier that McQueary says is defamatory. Explaining the process behind the statement, Powers explained she had little knowledge of the breadth of the situation when the statement was originally conceived by Spanier. After the statement was released, communications to her office immediately “exploded” and she said all hell broke loose. Powers spoke on how her office keeps track of media coverage and placements before court adjourned for the day.

The trial will resume Tuesday at 9 a.m.

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About the Author

Elissa Hill

Elissa was the managing editor of Onward State from 2017-2019. She is from Punxsutawney, PA [insert corny Bill Murray joke here] and considers herself an expert on all things ice cream. Follow her on Twitter (@ElissaKHill) for more corny jokes.

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