Sunday, April 7, 2013
Inside Rutgers' 17-day investigation
By Don Van Natta Jr.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- On Nov. 26, Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti first watched the video of head basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players during practices. Pernetti's first instinct, he said in his resignation letter Friday, was to fire Rice immediately.
But he didn't do that. Instead, Pernetti sought second opinions and, at the direction of Rutgers attorneys, he commissioned a report by an independent investigator. Pernetti initially consulted with Robert L. Barchi, the Rutgers president; the interim general counsel, John B. Wolf; and several human resources employees. They decided to hire John P. Lacey, a northern New Jersey lawyer, to conduct an independent investigation of Mike Rice.
On Nov. 27, Pernetti met with Lacey, who was given a copy of the video. That night, Lacey says he went to his home in Westfield, N.J., and watched the 30-minute video eight to 10 times into the early morning hours. "When I saw it, I was disgusted and outraged," Lacey said in an interview with "Outside the Lines" Friday. "I thought, 'Get rid of this guy.'"
So, if after seeing the video, the initial instincts of Pernetti and Lacey were to fire Rice, it raises a simple question: Why wasn't he fired?
The answer lies in Rutgers' 17-day inquiry that depended on the fact-finding and advice of in-house and outside lawyers, human resources employees, an outside investigator and even a sports psychologist. It was a meticulous inquiry that interviewed many people and weighed the advice of many others. But Barchi, the president, inexplicably did not examine the key piece of evidence -- the video -- he acknowledged again Friday.
Lacey's 52-page report and information obtained by "Outside the Lines" reveal details not previously known in the saga. For example, the notion made public this week that Pernetti first was alerted to Rice's behavior against players by former assistant Eric Murdock in June 2012 is not true -- it was months earlier and by Rice's assistant coaches. And, in addition to debating firing Rice, Rutgers nearly settled on a 10-game suspension of him instead of the three-game suspension handed down in December by Pernetti.
Barchi on Friday called the eight-month odyssey "a failure of process." His news conference marked the end of a week that had news going from bad to worse at Rutgers. Four people have lost their jobs: Rice, who was fired Wednesday morning; Wolf, the in-house counsel who resigned that night; Jimmy Martelli, an assistant basketball coach who also resigned Wednesday; and, finally, Pernetti, who left office Friday in what Barchi described as a "mutual decision" of his and Pernetti's.
In his resignation letter, Pernetti said, "Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal."
But the report makes it clear that Lacey concluded Rice's behavior did violate Rutgers policy barring workplace violence: "In sum, we believe there is sufficient evidence to find that certain actions of Coach Rice did 'cross the line' of permissible conduct and that such actions constituted harassment or intimidation within Rutgers' Policy, Section 60.1.13." That policy is Rutgers' Workplace Violence Policy, in which "behavior would be interpreted by a reasonable person as being evidenced of intent to cause physical harm to individuals or property."
Lacey also concluded that Rice violated the terms of his five-year contract that would pay him $700,000 next season. "Furthermore," Lacey wrote, "due to the intensity with which Coach Rice engaged in some of the misconduct, we believe that AD Pernetti could reasonably determine that Coach Rice's actions tended to embarrass and bring shame or disgrace to Rutgers in violation of Coach Rice's employment with Rutgers."
On the Rutgers campus, Pernetti remains extremely popular. He's a Rutgers graduate who played tight end and, as athletic director, he helped win Rutgers entry into the lucrative Big Ten last November as he said he was personally investigating allegations about Rice's allegedly abusive behavior. "It's a really sad day for a lot of people including me and my family," Pernetti told reporters Friday afternoon. He was unavailable to comment for this story and he has not returned repeated messages on his cell phone this week.
Rice was Pernetti's first major hire as athletic director. He introduced Rice as Rutgers' coach in May 2010, and Rice signed a five-year contract estimated to be worth about $3 million. In more than one news story about the hire, Rice's passion and fiery edge were mentioned as intangibles that Pernetti valued.
But the Lacey report shows rifts in the Pernetti-Rice union, and those rifts are the same ones that would cost both men their jobs. In February and March 2012, Pernetti met with Rice and "cautioned him that singling out a player for punishment, or mistreatment of players, would not be tolerated in the future," Lacey's report shows.
Rice had also "personally engaged in conduct, or tacitly allowed others under his supervision to engage in conduct, that violated policies of the NCAA," the report says. One was to allow Murdock, who sued the university on Friday for wrongful termination, to coach some basketball practices, which he was not permitted to do. Rice also attended offseason workouts in 2010, shortly after his hiring. Rice was issued two letters of admonishment in July 2012, according to the report.
Lacey found Rice's actions shown on the video did not violate all of the university's policies, including Rutgers' anti-bullying policy, which extends only to students' behavior. Lacey also concluded that Rice's conduct "did not create a 'hostile work environment' as that term is understood in connection with anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies," which deals with discrimination only, Lacey said.
In an interview Friday, Lacey said he was not hired to make recommendations about punishment for Rice.
"I was retained to conduct a factual investigation," Lacey said. "I concluded that Coach Rice had violated university policy and that he had breached the terms of his employment contract. I reported those findings to the university. My retention did not include making a recommendation concerning any penalty." Lacey's initial reaction to the video was a personal one, and one that was not weighed by Rutgers. He declined to comment further.
Lacey talked nearly every day with Pernetti about his investigation's progress. Lacey interviewed six players, one former player, a player who transferred from Rutgers named Gil Biruta, all of Rice's assistants and other support personnel in the basketball program, Rice, Pernetti, Murdock and a sports psychologist whom Pernetti consulted earlier this year. Lacey reviewed nearly 50 hours of videotaped practices from a two-year period; there are more than 300 DVDs -- covering at least as many hours -- that he could have reviewed.
Lacey found that Rice "did engage in certain conduct that went beyond mere cursing, including occasions where Coach Rice used coarse, inappropriate and insulting language during practices and workouts, verbally attacked players in a manner outside the bounds of proper coaching, shoved and grabbed players on multiple occasions and engaged in other boorish and immature behavior."
However, Lacey also found that most players didn't mind Rice's tactics. They understood that Rice was throwing basketballs at them and shoving them and screaming obscenities at them in a bid to make them better. They told Lacey that Rice "cared" about them and that they had bought into his practice philosophy that he was attempting to make them "comfortable" in the "chaos" of a basketball game.
But at least two assistants told Lacey that they were uncomfortable with Rice's tactics, particularly his homophobic language. They acknowledged that they had spoken with Rice. And they told Lacey that Rice's goal of helping the players become accustomed to the roughness of the Big East conference "could be achieved through other, less objectionable, means."
On Dec. 8 or Dec. 9, sources say, the bulk of Lacey's investigative work was done. Pernetti was consulting with Wolf, the general counsel, and Barchi about the appropriateness of Rice's punishment. Pernetti has insisted that termination was considered throughout the 17 days in November and December.
An initial proposed punishment for Rice was a suspension of 10 games, sources say. This would have ensured that Rice missed the beginning of the Big East schedule that started in early January. Barchi and Pernetti decided to reduce the suspension to three games, ending just ahead of the Big East start. One source said he believed Rice's agent had lobbied Pernetti for a reduced punishment.
Another consideration in the discussion was money. If Rice were fired without cause, it could cost the university the remaining $1.7 million on his contract, sources say. "Money was one of the factors weighed when a punishment for Rice was discussed," a source said. A second source said, "Rutgers did this on the cheap. In hindsight, it was obviously a mistake."
Rice agreed to additional clauses to his contract that if he ever were found to be resorting to his old tactics, he could be terminated immediately, sources said. Pernetti "cared about the kids and their safety, and he put Mike on a very tight leash," a source close to Pernetti said. "People have lost sight of that."
Lacey, a former federal prosecutor, also investigated the controversial role of whistle-blower Eric Murdock in the case. On Dec. 27, a month and one day after showing Pernetti the videotape, Murdock's lawyers demanded $950,000 to settle their wrongful termination claims. Rutgers said no.
According to a report by the New York Times, Murdock is under investigation by the FBI as it attempts to determine whether or not he attempted to extort Rutgers.
Murdock had brought the allegations to Pernetti in late June 2012. But Lacey sided with Rice and Pernetti's account that Murdock was not officially fired, and instead his contract was not renewed. His lawsuit was filed on Friday in Essex County, seeking unstated damages for wrongful termination and also asking for an order dismissing Barchi.
Producers Justine Gubar and Greg Amante of "Outside the Lines" contributed to this report.