Two years after  hiring former sports agent Gregg Clifton to build out its collegiate and professional sports practice, labor and employment firm  Jackson Lewis has been retained by a member of Penn State’s board of trustees to appeal  National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions levied against the school in the wake of an embarrassing child sex-abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Clifton and Paul Kelly, a former executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association  hired by Jackson Lewis earlier this year, are leading a team from the firm representing  Ryan McCombie, one of three Penn State alums  elected to the school’s board of trustees in May.
Also elected as a trustee that month was  Duane Morris associate Adam Taliaferro, a former Penn State football player  who battled back from a serious spinal cord injury to pursue a legal degree. Taliaferro,  who joined Duane Morris two years ago and picked up his  first political win late last year, was outspoken in his  support of legendary Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno amid the eruption of the Sandusky scandal last November. (Taliaferro did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.)
Taliaferro and his  fellow Penn State trustees—which include lawyers like  Fox Rothschild litigation partner Stephanie Deviney and former  Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice of counsel H. Jesse Arnelle—have been  tasked with rebuilding the school’s reputation following the  June conviction of Sandusky on 45 of 48 child sex abuse charges.
The Sandusky verdict was followed by the mid-July release of a devastating 162-page report by former federal judge and ex–FBI director Louis Freeh, who was hired last year to conduct an internal investigation at Penn State into the Sandusky matter. Freeh faulted senior school officials for concealing “critical facts” related to Sandusky’s conduct from local police, according to sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer, which has reported extensively on the potential ramifications of the report for the university. (The report also examined governance lapses at the school and took a close look at Penn State general counsel Cynthia Baldwin, a former Duane Morris partner who resigned as the university’s top in-house lawyer earlier this year.)
A little more than a week after Freeh released his report, the NCAA responded by slapping Penn State with a $60 million fine—a sum that approaches $73 million when including lost revenues from a four-year bowl game ban—and vacating all of the football team’s wins from 1998 through 2011. Penn State also saw the number of football scholarships it can award in any given year reduced to 65 from the normal number of 85, raising the possibility that many of the team’s star players could transfer to other schools.
The dramatic decision by the NCAA, which serves as the governing body for major college sports, was a step short of the much-feared “ death penalty” that would have effectively ended the football program made famous by Paterno. DLA Piper chairman emeritus George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator and diplomatic envoy to global trouble spots, was appointed by the NCAA last week to serve as an independent “athletics integrity” and compliance monitor for Penn State.
Gene Marsh, a former chairman of the NCAA’s infractions committee who is now a partner specializing in collegiate compliance and investigations issues at Birmingham-based  Lightfoot, Franklin & White, advised the school on its sanctions negotiations with NCAA officials, including  general counsel and former Latham & Watkins partner Donald Remy. (The full details of Marsh’s involvement for the school can be found in a  feature story written for ESPN The Magazine’s college football issue by Don Van Natta Jr.)
While Penn State avoided the death penalty, the NCAA’s still-severe sanctions left Paterno’s legacy in tatters. The lost wins meant that Paterno,  who died in January at 85 three months after being fired by the school, was no longer the coach with the most victories in Division I college football. (Paterno’s family, represented by  King & Spalding partner J. Sedwick Sollers III, has vowed to conduct its own review of Freeh’s findings, on which the NCAA’s punishments were based.)
The NCAA sanctions were severe enough to induce McCombie to file an appeal on Monday in a letter to infractions committee liaison Wendy Walters. The signatures of Clifton and Kelly of Jackson Lewis, neither of whom responded to requests for comment by the time of this story, appear on the three-page letter sent on behalf of McCombie.  Another letter sent from McCombie, a former Navy SEAL, to his fellow trustees seeks to get them to join him in an appeal. At least three have taken McCombie up on the offer, according to news reports, as well as several former Penn State football players.
The Jackson Lewis letter to the NCAA’s infractions committee claims that the organization’s sanctions of the school will result in permanent damage to its football program and current student-athletes and coaches that had nothing to do with Sandusky’s conduct or the alleged cover-up that ensued.
The letter further questions the NCAA’s reliance on Freeh’s report as a basis for its sanctions and claims that Penn State president Rodney Erickson acted outside his authority when he accepted the NCAA’s punishment without consulting with the university’s board of trustees.
The Am Law Daily last spoke with Clifton two years ago about his plans to expand the sports practice at Jackson Lewis, which opined on the NCAA’s “historic penalties” against Penn State earlier this month on its  collegiate and professional sports law blog. Clifton, who works out of the firm’s Phoenix office, previously represented baseball players like Tom Glavine, Luis Gonzalez, and David Wells as a sports agent.
Kelly, a former federal prosecutor who had stints at  Ropes & Gray and  Foley Hoag before cofounding Boston-based  Kelly, Libby & Hoopes in 2000, was  hired in October 2007 to head the NHLPA. But his tenure lasted less than two years, and  Kelly was terminated in August 2009 after butting heads with powerful forces at the union. Kelly subsequently filed suit against the NHLPA over his firing, a case that eventually settled in February 2010,  according to our previous reports.
Kelly went on to become executive director of College Hockey Inc., an organization that handles the business aspects of collegiate hockey for Division I schools playing the sport as part of the NCAA. He held that role until April of this year, when Kelly joined Jackson Lewis.
It remains unclear what potential role Jackson Lewis could have on a trustee-supported appeal of the NCAA’s sanctions might mean for  Reed Smith, which was  hired by the university last November to advise its board of trustees.
Reed Smith said in a statement to The Am Law Daily that it continues to serve as “counsel to the university and the board of trustees on a variety of matters, including with respect to the NCAA consent decree.”
Earlier this year, Penn State unveiled a new transparency initiative in which it publicly disclosed its outside legal fees related to the Sandusky scandal. Updated figures provided by the university show that Reed Smith and Freeh’s firm, as well as a handful of public relations and consulting firms, are splitting up more than $5.3 million in fees.
Other firms divvying up more than $1.2 million in payments for legal services and defense work include Duane Morris, Jenner & Block, Lanny J. Davis & Associates, Lee, Green & Reiter, ML Strategies, Saul Ewing, and Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewisaccording to Penn State records.