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State Lawmakers ‘Vent’ About LSU’s Handling Of Title IX Complaints As University Officials Refuse To Appear Before Committee

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
LSU General Counsel Winston DeCuir testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children. April 8, 2021.

Louisiana state lawmakers on Thursday continued their investigation into LSU’s handling of Title IX complaints and allegations of sexual misconduct within the athletic department. Noticeably absent were the high-profile university employees who had been called to testify.

The Senate Select Committee on Women and Children requested in-person testimony from 10 LSU officials, including members of the Board of Supervisors and athletic department employees, up to Athletic Director Scott Woodward and Head Football Coach Ed Orgeron.

All 10 refused, opting to provide written testimony in lieu of an in-person appearance. LSU General Counsel Winston DeCuir said he told the university employees, many of whom have been named as defendants in state and federal lawsuits, that it would be unwise to testify under oath while they are the subjects of pending litigation. DeCuir fielded the questions of the committee in their place.

In two separate lawsuits, Sharon Lewis, associate athletic director of football recruiting, alleged that university officials conspired to cover up Title IX complaints she fielded and that she faced workplace retaliation for reporting multiple complaints that former head football coach Les Miles sexually harassed and assaulted student workers. Lewis detailed her allegations in an exclusive interview with USA Today, outlining Miles’ pattern of predatory behavior with female student workers, her superiors’ repeated dismissal of her complaints, and their eventual retaliation.

Lewis made those allegations official in civil suits filed in the 19th Judicial District Court and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on Thursday.

DeCuir said he expects the lawsuit to be “messy” but he believes the university will “defend it successfully.”

Many of the lawmakers, including Rep. Aimee Freeman (D-New Orleans) pointed out that many university officials “weren’t planning to come” well before Lewis filed her lawsuits.

Orgeron and Deputy Athletic Director Verge Ausberry both indicated that they would not appear before Lewis announced her intention to sue.

State Senator Regina Barrow, chairwoman of the committee, described Orgeron’s decision to not testify in person as “troubling” in a written statement issued Tuesday night.

“Coach Orgeron and all those involved in this matter owe it to those ladies to stop with this dismissive behavior and to own up to what occurred, taking responsibility for the actions that took place and the cover-up that followed,” Barrow said Tuesday in a written statement.

During Thursday’s hearing, Barrow said she and her fellow committee members are exploring their authority to compel university employees to appear before the committee. While the legislature is in session, standing committees can exercise subpoena power with the approval of the majority of their fellow House or Senate members and the House Speaker or Senate President.

“This is not going to be tolerated,” Barrow said. “Every member of the legislature, the President, the Speaker, have all joined us in ensuring that this is done properly — either by willingly doing it [testifying], or unwillingly doing it.”

Members expressed their frustration with the officials’ refusal to participate and they questioned the university’s commitment to the reforms they’ve promised.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans), who is a survivor of domestic violence, said the university has been quick to offer platitudes to those who suffered sexual harassment, sexual assault and dating-partner violence at the hands of LSU students but slow to dole out punishment to the perpetrators and the university employees who have covered up or ignored such acts.

“The appearance is that everything is being done to kick the can,” Peterson said. “We say the same things over and over and there are no consequences. I am confident that the system needs to change. Heads need to roll.”

So far, no university employees have been fired. LSU Deputy Athletic Director Verge Ausberry and Senior Associate Athletic Director Miriam Segar were suspended without pay for 30 and 21 days, respectively, for wrongdoing exposed in the law firm Husch Blackwell’s sweeping investigation into LSU’s handling for alleged cases of sexual misconduct.

DeCuir said during Thursday’s hearing that a third employee, LSU Associate Dean of Students Jonathan Sanders, was reassigned after a USA Today investigation found that he regularly gave students the lightest sanctions for misconduct, including students who had been found responsible for rape and domestic abuse.

During his weekly press briefing, Gov. John Bel Edwards said the worst offenders have since left the university and the disciplinary actions taken against current employees were “within the reasonable range.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards rolled out his agenda for the upcoming legislative session, including bills that would require more rigorous requirements for colleges and universities to report Title IX complaints and that would further empower people who experience sexual harassment at work to sue their employers.

DeCuir did not rule out the possibility of further disciplinary action but said the university has set its sights on a loftier goal: rebuilding its system for processing Title IX complaints from the ground up.

“This isn’t about one person who did something wrong, and we’re not fixing or taking discipline against that one person,” DeCuir said. “We had a system for handling Title IX problems that was not set up correctly. We’re talking about changing an entire system.”

DeCuir likened the process to building a large wooden ship.

“Laying the keel of a ship is not the part people enjoy watching, they want to see you break the champagne over the bow and launch it, but we have to start with the keel and we have to lay it board by board,” DeCuir said.

Sen. Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton) echoed Peterson’s calls for a shake-up of LSU personnel and said that the people of Louisiana would not easily forget a decade of negligence at the highest levels of the state’s flagship university.

“Nobody trusts the ship that you’re building,” Mizell said. “You have this burden of not just fixing it, but making us trust that the people driving that ship are worthy of being trusted again.”