Former Penn State president Graham Spanier is suing former FBI chief Louis J. Freeh for defamation and tortious interference and Penn State University for breach of contract, according to a complaint filed Wednesday afternoon in Centre County, Pennsylvania.
The 140-page lawsuit accuses Freeh and his law firm, Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, of “knowingly and maliciously” publishing “false and defamatory” statements about Spanier in the July 2012 Freeh report that accused the longtime PSU president of being part of a cover-up of child sex abuse by retired assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Spanier, 66, filed his civil lawsuit while waiting to stand trial on charges of perjury, endangering the welfare of children, obstruction of justice, failure to report child abuse, conspiracy to commit perjury and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children.
“By all accounts, Dr. Spanier was one of the most honored and decorated university presidents with a sterling reputation before Freeh and Penn State published these false conclusions,” said Libby Locke, a lawyer for Spanier and a partner at Clare Locke in Alexandria, Virginia. “Dr. Spanier knows that he is innocent. And once an impartial jury has the opportunity to weigh the full body of evidence — not just Freeh’s one-sided presentation of it — Dr. Spanier is confident that the public will know it, too.”
Officials from Penn State declined comment; Freeh’s office said he was traveling and not available for comment.
The complaint also accuses “certain members” of Penn State’s board of trustees of making “disparaging statements” about Spanier in the weeks and months following Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011.
Spanier served as Penn State’s president from 1995 through 2011.
His lawyers accuse several PSU trustees of falsely telling members of the media and the public that Spanier had been fired when he and the university signed a termination agreement that allowed him to keep an array of benefits, including a tenured professorship, which Locke said he still has, though the university is in the process of attempting to revoke it. In addition to publishing the Freeh report on a university website, two members of the board of trustees “repeatedly made negative comments about Dr. Spanier” during two news conferences that violated a non-disparagement clause in Spanier’s termination contract, the lawsuit alleges.
The Freeh report’s damning portrait of Spanier led directly to criminal charges being filed against him by the Pennsylvania attorney general and have “caused him economic harm,” his lawsuit alleges. Two other former PSU leaders — former athletic director Tim Curley and former university president Gary Schultz — are also awaiting a criminal trial on charges of perjury and failure to properly report suspected child abuse.
In July 2013, Spanier filed notice that he intended to file a libel-type lawsuit against Freeh, but his complaint was not filed until Wednesday afternoon at the Centre County courthouse in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Spanier’s defense of the criminal charges and his fight to rehabilitate his reputation will now travel on parallel tracks — one in the Dauphin County criminal courthouse and the other in the Centre County civil courthouse.
In his 267-page report, Freeh alleged that Spanier, football coach Joe Paterno, Curley and Schultz “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the university’s board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large.”
But Spanier’s lawsuit denies his role: “During his tenure as President of Penn State, Dr. Spanier never received any information that Sandusky had abused a child. Dr. Spanier was never provided information that would lead him to conclude that Sandusky had ever committed a criminal act directed at a child until after Sandusky’s criminal indictment.”
“Louis Freeh concluded that Dr. Spanier was aware of Jerry Sandusky’s reprehensible behavior, and that he actively covered it up,” Locke said. “That is false. ”
In the complaint, Spanier’s lawyers say Freeh and his law firm were hired by the Penn State Board of Trustees, at a total cost of $8.3 million, to deliver a “preconceived outcome” that justified the board’s decisions to fire Paterno and terminate Spanier’s employment contract at the height of the country’s outrage over the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Spanier sat for an interview with Freeh and two his investigators on July 6, 2012, six days before the Freeh report’s release, and for a question-and-answer session that lasted four and a half hours, the complaint says. By then, the complaint alleges, Freeh’s “preconceived outcome for the report” had already been written.
The suit also alleges that Freeh “intentionally interfered” with Spanier’s prospective employment opportunities after leaving Penn State. In April 2012, Freeh heard from trustees that Spanier had been hired by the federal government to work on national security matters after he was cleared during a background check in a Federal Investigative Service report, the complaint says. But Freeh later told the trustees that he and his colleagues had “done our job” and contacted federal officials, the complaint alleges.
“Soon thereafter,” the lawsuit says, “Dr. Spanier’s assignments were terminated.”
“As Dr. Spanier’s defamation complaint lays out, Freeh recklessly and maliciously disregarded evidence demonstrating Dr. Spanier’s innocence, including a Federal Investigative Service report vindicating Dr. Spanier,” Locke said.
In addition, the lawsuit alleges that Freeh discovered exculpatory testimony and facts that refuted the accusations against Spanier, and “purposefully avoided interviewing the most critical individuals with most relevant knowledge.” Freeh and his investigators did not question Paterno, although the coach offered to be interviewed before his death of complications from lung cancer in January 2012. Freeh also did not interview Curley and Schultz, who were both charged in November 2011.
The complaint also attacks Freeh’s “lucrative business model” as a former federal judge and former FBI chief hired by institutions to conduct “so-called ‘independent investigations’ and producing ‘investigative reports’ custom tailored with preconceived storylines to meet his clients’ objectives.”
According to the complaint’s timeline, it’s clear that Spanier’s lawyers intend to rely upon a cache of documents produced during discovery of a recently settled lawsuit filed by two Pennsylvania state officials against the NCAA, including emails, memos and meetings between Freeh’s investigators and NCAA lawyers and enforcement officials in the weeks after Freeh was hired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on Nov. 21, 2011.
Spanier is seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Freeh; his law firm, which is now part of Pepper Hamilton; his consulting firm, Freeh Group International Solutions; and Penn State.
A Penn State spokesman declined to comment about
Don Van Natta Jr. | email
Senior writer, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com