Law firms are being called upon to tell the state what the University of Connecticut did wrong, or right, in the wake of allegations of sexual assault on the part of a former music professor.
Last week, the Connecticut Attorney General's Office announced it is seeking bids from law firms to advise and represent UConn's Board of Trustees. The request comes following revelations that UConn officials didn't take prompt action after staff members learned as far back as 2006 that Robert Miller may have had inappropriate sexual contact with university students. Those complaints are detailed in police reports that came to light in June.
Miller is also accused of molesting children off campus, including several boys who attended a camp for sick children. In the request for proposals, the Attorney General's Office, which normally represents state agencies in legal matters, explained that it is seeking an outside firm "because of the complexity of the issues and the variety and magnitude of resources required."
The proposals from law firms are due July 29. The AG's office will then conduct interviews and select a firm. The state has budgeted $250,000 for the legal work, but that figure could increase as the investigation moves forward.
The outside firm will be expected to determine whether there was a violation of law or university policy in responding to the sexual misconduct complaints and whether there is any weakness in university policy that should be corrected.
Whichever firm is selected will also be tasked with helping the university avoid litigation related to the scandal. If similar investigations conducted by law firms representing Penn State University and Syracuse University are any indication, the task will be long and complex.
Legal observers say the job is likely to go to a firm that does government investigations work, which typically relies on a mix of labor and employment law, insurance law and white collar criminal defense. A handful of large firms in the state, including Wiggin and Dana, Shipman & Goodwin, and Pullman & Comley, have groups devoted to that practice area.
Some lawyers with expertise in that area, including former FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose law firm was hired to complete a similar assignment for Penn State during the Jerry Sandusky scandal, were reluctant to speak on the record about the UConn case. All agreed it is becoming more common for private institutions and government agencies to retain outside firms to conduct internal investigations.
"I don't want to comment on this case in particular," said Ross Garber, a partner in the Government Investigations Practice at Shipman. "But as a general matter, it is not unusual for public universities, public agencies and private companies to bring in outside counsel to handle significant investigations."
It's not that the Attorney General's Office, or in-house attorneys for the university are deficient, Garber continued. "It's that qualified outside counsel will often have more skill, experience and resources to apply in sensitive investigations than in-house staff," he said.
Also, when it comes delving deep into allegations to protect a school or business from potential liability, "outside lawyers can exercise a degree of independence, which can be valuable."
Garber has handled investigations for public and private clients facing investigations all over the country. Most often, Garber said, a law firm will approach an internal investigation by reviewing documents, emails and interviewing witnesses. In the UConn case, the law firm will be expected to work closely with the investigations firm Marcum, which has already been retained to complete computer forensics work. The purpose of Marcum's work, UConn officials said, is to review computers of faculty members to find other witnesses or potential victims.
Law firms hired to conduct an investigation for a university facing a sex scandal are often expected to delve into aspects of pending criminal investigations. That was the case when Freeh's firm was hired by the Penn State board of trustees to probe how the university handled allegations against Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the university's football team. After the report was made public, Sandusky was found guilty of sexual abuse.
Freeh's report, which was completed after lawyers spent several months interviewing 430 individuals, and going through 3.5 million documents, also incriminated three administrators and Penn State's legendary former head football coach, Joe Paterno, who passed away last year.
Almost a year to the day after that internal investigation was completed, one of the individuals who was incriminated, former Penn State President Graham Spanier, indicated he may sue Freeh for libel, defamation or slander.
Similar reports were completed by an outside law firm at the request of Syracuse University last year, after assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine was accused of molesting a ball boy. The ensuing report, which was completed by the law firm Paul, Weiss Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, praised the Chancellor Nancy Cantor with how the university handled the matter. Fine was never charged criminally, and has maintained his innocence.
Miller worked at UConn for three decades and once led the music department. School employees were notified several times between 2006 and 2011 of allegations that Miller had sexual relations with children, but it wasn't until February of this year that school administrators were told of the claims, according to UConn officials and the Attorney General's Office. Last month, Miller was placed on administrative leave.
School officials said they did not have the information they needed to place Miller on leave until they had received a search warrant affidavit from state police last month.
The allegations against Miller, who has not been charged with any crime, were not widely publicized before last week, when UConn announced it is cooperating with the investigations. UConn officials acted quickly after they first learned of the investigations of Miller this year, UConn President Susan Herbst said in a statement.
"Any accusation of sexual misconduct by faculty, staff, or students is among the gravest issues that any institution must face. It is clear that serious accusations have been made, questions that demand answers have been raised, and we will do all we can to find the truth and protect the vulnerable," Herbst said.
No firm has stepped forward to announce it will seek the job. Speaking off the record, prominent government investigations lawyers said they expect that whichever firm is selected will likely have experience dealing with sex abuse cases.
Peter Giuliani, a Weston-based law firm management consultant, said that any firm that throws its hat in the ring to handle the investigation for the state will not do so because it's "a big, high-profit case."
"This could be a way to get other work [from UConn]. I don't see any downside in taking it," Giuliani said. "The only downside I could see would be if the results of the investigation turn out to be a whitewash, and then it looks like the law firm came in to be an independent consultant, but was instead somehow complicit in making the scandal go away."•