Grand Jury Report Outlines Alumnus Don Abbey’s Involvement In Beta Theta Pi House
The Centre County Grand Jury released its report and recommendations Friday morning following an investigation into Penn State’s Greek life culture in the wake of Tim Piazza’s death. The full report, which runs more than 200 pages, concludes what happened at Beta Theta Pi is not unique to the fraternity and is, instead, a fault of the Interfraternity Council and the university.
A major portion of the report describes the conditions at Beta Theta Pi when it was previously suspended by its national organization in January 2009, including testimony from Don Abbey about his experience with the chapter and his funding of major renovations to the fraternity house.
Abbey is currently involved in two active lawsuits centering on the fraternity house — one against the chapter’s alumni house corporation and one against members of the corporation’s board of directors. He says he provided more than $8 million over the course of a decade for repairs, renovations, and operations of the fraternity house.
The then-president of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi chapter approached Abbey in 2005 to solicit a donation for repairs, which Abbey says started as a $50,000 project to correct water damage.
This eventually became an $8.5 million dollar project to “restore the house to its former architectural glory” according to the Grand Jury report on Abbey’s testimony. Abbey told the Grand Jury that “his desire to return the home to its traditional roots meant not only renovating the building, but also changing the culture from one of partying to one of principle.”
He said throughout the years of renovations, brothers living in the house would party and destroy the improvements, including razor blade slices to expensive upholstered furniture. Abbey even told the Grand Jury the brothers living in the house during renovations were “bums” and he was concerned his investment would be wasted because of the underage and excessive drinking by the fraternity.
The fraternity’s national organization shut down the chapter in 2009 after a series of alcohol-related incidents, and Abbey said at that point Beta’s national leaders reached out to him to help re-open the house with the “Men of Principle” initiative in mind. They then agreed to keep the house dry (alcohol-free) and to end any and all hazing activities.
Abbey also testified he met with then-Penn State President Graham Spanier, Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, and then-Dean of Student affairs Vicki Triponey. Abbey says he tried to persuade the three administrators that they needed to stop all drinking on campus, but Sims testified that in the same meeting he recalled Abbey focusing “overwhelmingly” on the house itself and the way the fraternity brothers treated it.
Finally, Abbey described to the Grand Jury how his efforts to maintain a dry house were “met with extreme resistance” from powerful alumni and even a Penn State trustee, none of whom are named in the Grand Jury report. He said he believed Penn State was “more concerned with maintaining the university’s status as a ‘party school’ to encourage new student applications, and less concerned, if at all, with the problem of excessive drinking.”
Abbey filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the fraternity chapter’s alumni house corporation earlier this year after Penn State revoked the chapter’s recognition following the death Tim Piazza. He says he’s owed $8.5 million over more than a decade for repairs, renovations and operations for the fraternity house, but the chapter says Abbey is trying to convert an irrevocable gift into a conditional gift and that the lawsuit is “in essence for ownership and control of the house.”
An agreement states that if the chapter violated Beta Theta Pi’s “Men of Principle” initiative or ceased “to be a chapter of the general fraternity and the [property] is utilized for a purpose other than Alpha Upsilon of Beta Theta Pi unless agreed to by Abbey,” the fraternity would have to repay the money, according to court filings. Former members were evicted from the house in March and it remained unused until September, when the alumni corporation opened it up for alumni to stay in during home football weekends.
Abbey is also suing members of the board of directors for the alumni housing corporation. He claims a breach of fiduciary duty for allegedly allowing alcohol use and hazing by active members that led to Piazza’s death, expenses and debt for legal fees, and unlawful use of the house after the active chapter was shuttered in the wake of Piazza’s death. He’s seeking to have board members pay restitution to the alumni corporation and reimbursement of his own legal expenses, and also wants access to the alumni corporation’s books and records.