Rutgers University announced Monday it would hire an independent investigator to review the process that led to the suspension of its basketball coach, Mike Rice, who was fired last week after a nationwide airing of video showing him abusing players at practice.
President Robert Barchi and Board of Governors Chairman Ralph Izzo said the probe would look at "circumstances surrounding the inappropriate behavior in the men’s basketball program and how they were addressed, and to make recommendations on how we can improve."
Also made public on Monday was an agreement detailing the financial terms of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti’s April 5 resignation in the wake of the scandal.
Barchi and Izzo said they plan to meet with the other board members Thursday to identify who will conduct the review.
The scope of the investigation, who the investigator might be and whether that person will be a lawyer, is not yet determined, university spokesman Greg Trevor said.
Asked whether the probe would include the actions of any of Rutgers’ previous advisers in the matter, Trevor declines comment.
At an April 5 news conference, Izzo expressed dissatisfaction with Connell Foley of Roseland, the outside counsel retained to investigate Rice and a claim by his director of player development, Eric Murdock, of wrongful termination for speaking out about Rice’s conduct.
"We pay dearly for good advice, and I’m not sure we got good advice," Izzo said.
Barchi and Izzo said at that news conference that Rice was not terminated earlier because they were advised he could not be fired for cause as he hadn’t clearly violated his contract.
Connell Foley’s Jan. 21 report — prepared by partner John Lacey and released by Rutgers on April 5 — stated that Rice hadn’t created a hostile work environment per se. But it indicated that Rice could be held in violation of his contract for using physical violence and homophobic epithets.
As for Pernetti, the university treated his departure as a termination without cause, agreed to pay his $453,000 annual salary through June 30, 2014, in addition to any bonuses due and outstanding travel or business expenses.
Within 30 days of the agreement, Pernetti also is to receive a payment of $679,500 — equal to 18 months’ salary.
Rutgers agreed it would not "criticize, denigrate, or disparage Mr. Pernetti in any manner whatsoever" or "make any comments or statements to the press or any other individual or entity that may likely adversely affect Mr. Pernetti’s reputation."
Pernetti agreed to withhold criticism and to cooperate with the university, but he is permitted to "truthfully discuss" the matter.
Each party must pay its own fees in the event of a dispute over the contract — which must be referred to arbitration — but the university promised to indemnify Pernetti in the event of litigation.
The indemnity provision came into play right away, as Murdock sued Pernetti — as well as Barchi, Rice, the university and others — in Essex County Superior Court on April 5, claiming violations of the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act and Law Against Discrimination.
Murdock’s lawyer, Barry Kozyra of Kozyra & Hartz in Roseland, contacted the university on Murdock’s behalf last July 11.
Murdock’s contract had expired shortly before the letter — an effective termination, he claimed, in retaliation for discussing Rice’s misconduct.
Pernetti enlisted Rutgers interim general counsel John Wolf to retain outside counsel to respond.
John Bennett of Jackson Lewis in Morristown wrote back to Kozyra on July 19, requesting production of evidence to support the allegations of Rice’s misconduct.
In a Sept. 26 letter, Kozyra indicated he had completed his preliminary investigation and requested a meeting.
During that Nov. 26 meeting, attended by Pernetti and Jackson Lewis partner Richard Cino, Kozyra showed a 30-minute video of clips of Rice during practices spanning the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, which showed him shoving and throwing basketballs at players and using off-color language.
The next day, Wolf retained Lacey, whose report attributed much of Rice’s behavior to a demanding coaching style.
Lacey also acknowledged in his report that rough physical contact with players and use of "faggot" and other terms "crossed the line" and reasonably could be interpreted to bring shame and embarrassment to the university in violation of his contract.
In December, Rice was suspended for three games and fined $50,000 — a decision allegedly reached by Pernetti, Wolf and Lacey, to which Barch deferred.
It’s unclear whether Jackson Lewis played a role in the decision. Cino, managing partner of the Morristown office, and Bennett did not respond to calls and emails Monday.
Barchi claims he didn’t see the video until April 2. Earlier that day, ESPN, which had been given the tape by Mutdock, aired it. Barchi ordered Rice’s termination the next day.
The scandal led to the April 4 resignation of Wolf as interim senior vice president and general counsel. Though he will no longer hold a leadership position, he will continue to be a staff attorney for Rutgers, Trevor says. Wolf has served in the university’s legal department in various capacities since 1984.
According to invoices retrieved via an Open Public Records Act request, the university has accrued a total of $75,783 in legal fees in connection with the Rice investigation and Murdock’s claims.
Connell Foley has been paid $64,604, charging $185 per hour for Lacey, $190 for firm partner Tricia O’Reilly and $145 for associate Meghan Burke.
Jackson Lewis has received $11,180, charging a $195 hourly rate for both Cino and Bennett.
Trevor did not respond to requests to identify Rutgers’ defense counsel in Murdock’s suit.
Kozyra did not respond to calls or emails.
David Gialanella is a reporter for the New Jersey Law Journal, a Legal affiliate.