An investigative report on Rutgers University’s botched discipline and firing of basketball coach Mike Rice points up missteps by the school’s top in-house lawyer.
Former senior vice president and interim general counsel John Wolf, who resigned amid the scandal, was responsible for keeping quiet a disgruntled ex-employee’s request for video of Rice’s practices, according to the report.
“It appears that, upon the instruction of Wolf (whose intention was to protect the University), Rutgers’ usual policies and procedures were not followed when the DVDs were released,” said Stephen Robinson and Christopher Gunther, of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Robinson is a former federal judge and U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut and Gunther a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Rice was terminated on April 3, the day after ESPN aired video — compiled from three years of practices — that showed him shoving players, hurling basketballs at them and rattling off homophobic epithets.
The report, ordered by Rutgers shortly after Rice’s dismissal, was released on July 22 after eight weeks of document reviews and interviews with about three dozen current and former employees.
It says that a year ago, former Director of Player Development Eric Murdock sent Rutgers officials a letter requesting raw practice footage under the Open Public Records Act and claiming he was wrongfully terminated for speaking out about Rice’s antics.
Wolf, to whom Murdock’s letter was forwarded, relayed its contents to the board of governors. But he “wrote that Murdock’s allegations appeared to present no significant exposure to the University,” Robinson and Gunther said.
Wolf told the board he would respond to Murdock’s counsel and continue to investigate, and then hired attorneys from Jackson Lewis in Morristown.
As for the OPRA request, Wolf directed the compliance associate handling it to forgo normal procedure. That typically meant discussing the request with the associate general counsel in charge of OPRA inquiries and others.
But Wolf instead directed her to discuss the matter only with Athletic Director Tim Pernetti and Janine Purcaro, the Athletic Department’s chief financial officer and human resources liaison.
“As a consequence of that discussion and the small circle of people who were brought into the loop … , the 219 DVDs of Coach Rice’s practices were released with no internal review … to ascertain their content,” the report says.
Rice, when asked about the footage by Pernetti, said there was nothing on the video to be concerned about.
But at a November 2012 meeting, Pernetti, Purcaro, an associate athletic director and Jackson Lewis partner Richard Cino were shown the 30-minute compilation Murdock’s lawyers produced to document Rice’s misconduct. Afterward they met with Wolf and decided to hire an outside investigator.
Pernetti briefly discussed the video and impending investigation with university President Robert Barchi, but Wolf was not present. “Wolf did not see it as his responsibility as Interim General Counsel to brief President Barchi separately on the contents of the video and instead relied on Pernetti to do so,” Robinson and Gunther said.
“Wolf believed that a verbal recitation could adequately convey the contents of the video and that the visual images did not add much to a full understanding of the behaviors of Coach Rice,” they continued.
Barchi did not view the video until April 2, after it was nationally aired.
Wolf and Pernetti hired John Lacey of Roseland’s Connell Foley, instructing him to gather facts but not to make a recommendation as to Rice’s discipline.
Wolf directed the Jackson Lewis attorneys to stay out of the investigation to avoid a potential conflict in defending a possible suit by Murdock — which he ended up filing in April.
Pernetti and Purcaro feared that Rice’s outright dismissal would entitle him to a payout of the rest of his contract. But the report notes that neither Wolf nor outside counsel advised that Rice could not be fired for cause.
Last December, Rice was suspended for three games without pay, fined $50,000 and directed to undergo anger-management counseling.
The video resurfaced in late March, when Pernetti warned Barchi and others that ESPN had been contacting current and former basketball players for comment on Rice’s actions at practice.
On April 2, Pernetti showed the video to Barchi, who terminated Rice the next day.
Wolf stepped down from the general counsel post and was to stay on as a staff attorney, but resigned days later. He had been working in the general counsel’s office in various capacities since 1984.
Wolf was replaced by Rutgers Law School-Newark Dean John Farmer Jr. Pernetti also resigned.
A staffer in the general counsel’s office declines to provide a forwarding number for Wolf. A reporter’s message left for him there was not returned.
In the numerous recommendations that make up the bulk of the report, Robinson and Gunther urge Rutgers to create an active risk management committee, appoint a chief risk officer, improve communication among university entities and develop a more centralized human resources department — which they said was barely involved in decision-making process in connection with Rice’s discipline.
Barchi, in announcing release of the report, said Skadden “conducted a thorough analysis, and its detailed recommendations will help us reassess our administrative structures and policies.” ■