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Rutgers, in Coach Debacle, Faults Its Outside Counsel
New Jersey Law Journal
As Rutgers University athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned Friday amid the scandal over men's basketball coach Mike Rice's unorthodox practices, he blamed the school administration for following a process that served to keep Rice on the payroll.
But Rutgers laid part of the blame on the law firm that allegedly balked at recommending Rice's termination: Connell Foley of Roseland.
"We pay dearly for good advice, and I'm not sure we got good advice," Board of Governors Chairman Ralph Izzo said at a news conference on Friday.
University officials said the decision last November to suspend rather than fire Rice was based at least partially on advice from the firm, which was retained to investigate videotaped incidents of Rice shoving and berating players, heaving basketballs at them and calling them "faggots."
The firm concluded that Rice's conduct did not create a hostile environment, though he might have breached provisions in his contract against embarrassing the school.
The firm also was charged with looking into claims by Eric Murdock, the former director of player development who released the videotape to ESPN, that he was wrongfully terminated for raising Rice's conduct.
Last July, Murdock's attorney, Barry Kozyra, wrote to university officials about his client's claim.
Kozyra, of Kozyra and Hartz in Roseland, later received from Rutgers through a request under the Open Public Records Act DVD footage of every basketball practice for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons.
The footage was used to compile a 30-minute collection of clips depicting Rice shoving players, throwing basketballs at them and using epithets.
On Nov. 26, Kozyra showed the tape to Pernetti and others.
The next day, Rutgers' interim general counsel John B. Wolf retained Connell Foley's John Lacey, who began an investigation that involved interviews of Rice, players and coaches and a review of the 30-minute video.
Pernetti suspended Rice for three games in December and fined him $50,000 but decided not to terminate him a joint decision he reached with Lacey and Wolf, to which university President Robert Barchi deferred.
Lacey gave his opinion that Rice could not be fired for cause because there was no clear violation of his employment contract. In a Jan. 21 report, made public Friday, Lacey wrote, "While it is clear that Coach Rice was extremely demanding of the players, the assistant coaches and himself since his initial hiring ... [his] conduct does not constitute a 'hostile work environment' as that term is understood under Rutgers' anti-discrimination policies."
He added: "On the contrary, Coach Rice formulated and implemented numerous policies and practices that were designed to, and did, operate to improve not only Rutgers' men's basketball program, but also to further the athletic and academic performance of all of the student-athletes on [the] team."
But Lacey said in the report that he found "sufficient evidence ... that certain actions of Coach Rice did 'cross the line' of permissible conduct and that such actions constituted harassment or intimidation" under Rutgers policy.
Those actions included striking players outside of practice drills and using homophobic slurs.
"Furthermore, due to the intensity with which Coach Rice engaged in some of the misconduct, we believe that AD Pernetti could reasonably determine that Coach Rice's actions tended to embarrass and bring shame or disgrace to Rutgers in violation of Coach Rice's employment contract with Rutgers," Lacey wrote.
Barchi even though he had signed off on Rice's suspension and was given a basic description of the video claimed he viewed it for the first time Tuesday night and ordered Rice's termination on Wednesday.
Wolf, the interim general counsel, resigned the next day. He had been with Rutgers as an in-house lawyer since 1984. His telephone at the university was disconnected Friday.
Barchi said he had no plans to resign. Izzo said he has the board's vote of confidence.
University spokesman Greg Trevor declines comment on Lacey's statement in the report that Rice might have violated his employment contract.
Lacey declines to comment, except to say the "report speaks for itself."
As for Murdock, Lacey found his wrongful-termination allegations without merit, calling it "clear that [Kozyra] was seeking money" for Murdock from Rutgers.
Kozyra did not return a call, but on Friday, he filed on Murdock's behalf a complaint in Essex County Superior Court against the university, Rice, Barchi, Pernetti and others, asserting violations of the state Conscientious Employee Protection Act and Law Against Discrimination, and common-law causes of action.
This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal.