Source: USA TODAY
INDIANAPOLIS – Six years after Mark Emmert left his job at the University of Connecticut, the governor of Connecticut ordered an investigation into a massive construction project on campus that had been ravaged by scandal, including more than $100 million lost because of mismanagement.
To find out where things went wrong, the investigators looked at old papers of Emmert, who once supervised the project as UConn’s chancellor. They soon found a bombshell.
Memos from 1998-99 showed that Emmert and two other top UConn officials knew about the construction project’s big problems then, but failed to disclose them to the school’s board of trustees or the state legislature.
The other two officials ultimately resigned after being placed on leave. The third — Emmert — went on to become president of the NCAA.
“There is absolutely no question that he was briefed on the magnitude of the problem three years into it,” Jonathan Pelto, who co-chaired the investigation for Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, said of the findings. “He was in a position to blow the whistle and didn’t.”
Gov. Rell called the fiasco “an astounding failure of oversight and management.”
It had no bearing on Emmert. By the time the problems were found, he was long gone, having become chancellor at LSU in 1999. Connecticut officials said their efforts to question him about his role in the matter were unproductive.
The case fits a pattern for Emmert. Rightly or wrongly, he has a history of dodging blame in scandals that have festered on his campuses, sometimes moving on to a more lucrative job before their full extent becomes known. Now as the top cop in college sports, he has talked tough, calling for more integrity in college sports and cracking down on wayward programs, including those that failed to blow the whistle, such as Penn State and Miami. But in his previous positions, Emmert has drawn criticism for not moving nearly as aggressively against problems that occurred under his watch. An investigation by USA TODAY Sports found:
Emmert supervised a $1 billion construction project at UConn that launched in 1995 but gradually became an epic mess, with widespread code violations and tens of millions of dollars in budget overruns. In an interview with USA TODAY Sports at NCAA headquarters last week, Emmert denied knowing about any negative findings in an audit of the UConn project in 1998.
“I never saw an audit issue that was a problem at all, and we certainly wouldn’t have kept it from people,” he said.
His assertion contradicts the findings of two official investigations in 2005 and a 1998 handwritten memo in his name obtained by USA TODAY Sports. Emmert’s role in the scandal never drew much attention because by the time it was discovered in 2005, he already had left UConn.
At LSU, an academic fraud scandal emerged in the football program under then-coach Nick Saban in 2001-02. Emmert oversaw an investigation into the allegations made by a university instructor that eventually acknowledged five minor and isolated violations and declared most of the claims “unfounded.”
Emmert even met on LSU’s behalf with the NCAA, which accepted LSU’s findings. But after Emmert decided to leave LSU in 2004, a witness testified in a deposition that the instructor was telling the truth and that the problems were far more systemic than the school admitted, even extending to grades being changed for football players, according to court records.
The culture was “appalling” and “like Romper Room,” the employee said in 2004 testimony.
The NCAA ruled that Montana State was guilty of a “lack of institutional control” in 1993 — the same time Emmert belonged to the university’s senior management team along with Jim Isch, now Emmert’s chief operating officer at the NCAA. The case related to academic fraud involving an assistant men’s basketball coach and a recruit. The NCAA didn’t rule on the case until after Emmert left for UConn in 1995. Emmert, who was Montana State’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, told USA TODAY Sports he wasn’t aware of the case and he did not oversee athletics at Montana State.
Furthermore, as a university president and chancellor, Emmert advocated for upgraded athletic facilities and the biggest salaries in the nation for himself and his football coach. Now at the NCAA, he works for schools who want reform to stem the runaway costs of athletics.
“He is a product of that same system with which he is trusted with reforming,” said Jason Lanter, a psychology professor at Kutztown University and past president of the Drake Group, which seeks reform in college sports.
Others see another issue.
“When you Google ‘Emmert,’ you do sort of see this pattern, which is he’s a great front man, but there always seems to be these problems with the people around him,” Pelto said. “Does he trust bad people? Is the problem that he doesn’t know what’s going on? Is the problem that he does know what’s going on and doesn’t do anything about it?”
Emmert, 60, rose through the ranks of higher education by climbing a ladder of administrative posts from Colorado (1985-92) to Montana State (1992-95) to UConn (1995-99) to LSU (1999-2004) and then Washington (2004-2010).
Observers say he is like a politician in many respects — an ambitious and skilled operator, communicator and fundraiser who tailors his message to his audience. In 2004, when he was named president at the University of Washington, he told university supporters that UW would be his “last stop.” But he left to become NCAA president in 2010.
“He is a master of public relations,” said Bill Funk, a friend of Emmert’s and search consultant who helps universities find new academic executives. “He’s extraordinary externally … the consummate president.”
As NCAA president, he’s embarked on an ambitious reform agenda designed to improve integrity and academic performance in college sports. It also aims to simplify the rulebook and get tough on those who violate major NCAA rules.
While he calls the academic reform measures a “rip-roaring success,” the NCAA has faced a barrage of criticism under his watch — mostly over how it handled the cases of Penn State and Miami.
Last July, Emmert announced a four-year football bowl ban and $60 million fine for Penn State, saying Penn State’s athletic culture went “horribly awry.” The reason for the punishment was because of findings that Penn State officials didn’t blow the whistle when they should have. They covered up evidence of child sex abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky in order to avoid negative publicity for the football program, according to an investigation commissioned by Penn State.
“If you find yourself in a position where the athletic culture is taking precedent over the academic culture, then a variety of bad things can occur,” Emmert said then.
Though Penn State had agreed to the sanctions, critics and Penn State fans said it was an overreach of power and unfair to current players and coaches who had nothing to do with the scandal.
In the Miami case, booster Nevin Shapiro allegedly showered athletes with impermissible money and gifts. The NCAA investigated, but was limited in the evidence it could obtain because it lacks the subpoena power to compel witnesses to cooperate. To work around this handicap, an NCAA investigator arranged to have Shapiro’s attorney question witnesses on the NCAA’s behalf at Shapiro’s bankruptcy court proceeding.
Though the tactic didn’t break any NCAA rules, it went against the advice of the NCAA’s own legal counsel. The NCAA also was potentially abusing a bankruptcy court proceeding by paying the attorney of a complaining witness to gather evidence against an NCAA member school.
After it was publicly revealed, Emmert condemned the tactic and said the NCAA had “failed our membership.” Miami President Donna Shalala said the university was wronged by the NCAA. The NCAA’s enforcement chief, Julie Roe Lach, was fired in the aftermath even though Isch approved funding the arrangement to use Shapiro’s attorney on behalf of the NCAA.
To some, it seemed Emmert sacrificed his staff to save himself and Isch, who approved the proposal’s funding but wasn’t responsible for deciding its appropriateness, according to a report on the case.
It was Emmert who promoted Roe Lach as his new vice president of enforcement in 2010. At the time, he praised her “innovative ideas” and said she would be developing “initiatives to discover and address violations.” A person familiar with the internal workings of the NCAA said there was a push “to become more aggressive because the bad guys were becoming more creative.”
“The repeated theme was to try and expedite processes and to become more innovative with what had been traditional tactics of gathering information,” the person said. The person requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Efforts to reach Roe Lach were unsuccessful.
“Julie Roe Lach is one of the smartest, most ethical people they have ever met,” the person said. “People celebrated her being selected in that role for that reason. People who know her are stunned by the way in which she’s been handled.”
Pelto, who investigated the UConn scandal, said he’s not surprised.
“(Emmert) was obviously very bright, very politically astute, aggressively upwardly mobile,” said Pelto, a former state legislator. At UConn, “he was not into detail, and he was very reliant on delegating. He was delegating and not providing the oversight that came with the responsibility of the job.”
The UConn scandal
Pelto had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the UConn administration and the mismanagement of the $1 billion construction project that was designed to upgrade the campus. Gov. Rell had appointed him to find out what happened when the project’s major problems became glaringly apparent in 2005, with severe budget overruns and more than 100 fire and safety code violations that needed to be corrected. Pelto conservatively estimated the project’s missteps cost at least $100 million in state money.
But two investigations — one by Pelto’s commission and another by the UConn board of trustees — concluded many of the problems could have been avoided if somebody had blown the whistle after problems became apparent years earlier.
A handwritten memo on Emmert’s stationery from 1998 lists a “summary of big issues” regarding the construction project. The memo outlines a debriefing by a company, PinnacleOne, which performed an audit that raised several serious concerns, including financial issues, problems with design standards and the experience of the staff working on the project.
“Mark Emmert’s own notes indicate he was aware of at least six key issues,” according to a report by a board of trustees member in 2005.
A new audit of the project in 2005 discovered the same problems that were in the audit seven years earlier — problems not brought to light at the time. Even UConn President Philip Austin said he recalled only a positive portrayal of the audit being passed on to him, though the commission found it hard to believe he also didn’t know about the problems.
“We believe the handling of the report was consistent with the practice at the time to avoid the possibility of negative information becoming public,” says the final report of the commission in 2005.
Pelto said the university might have feared losing funding or control of the project to the state if the problems had become known sooner. He said Emmert was in charge of the project and delegated responsibilities to others without keeping track of what was happening.
“It was just one massive screw-up after another,” Pelto said.
Two of Emmert’s former subordinates were placed on administrative leave and ultimately resigned.
By then, Emmert had left to become the chancellor at LSU in mid-1999. Pelto said the commission tried to interview him about the scandal but it was a “nonproductive discussion. (Emmert) said, ‘I didn’t know what was going on, and I thought it was taken care of.’”
When told by USA TODAY Sports that Pelto said he failed to blow the whistle, Emmert said, “Then he knows something I don’t, because I obviously disagree.”
The LSU case
At LSU, Emmert made changes to help turn around the football program, saying “success in LSU football is essential for the success of Louisiana State University.”
He hired Saban as coach in 1999 and helped make him the nation’s highest paid coach ($2.3 million) after the Tigers won the BCS championship in January 2004. Two years earlier, Emmert himself had become the nation’s highest-paid head of a public campus when his compensation was increased to about $500,000, a portion of which was paid by the Tiger Athletic Foundation.
Supporters justified his salary in part because he oversaw a fundraising drive that was on its way to bringing in $255 million.
“At LSU, he’s still a God-like figure,” said Funk, the consultant.
But scandal broke in 2001-02. A university instructor accused the school of having systemic academic fraud in its football program, including plagiarized papers on bobsledding players were turning in and un-enrolled students showing up to take notes for football players, who often slept through class. A graduate assistant also spoke out about the plagiarism problem.
At the time, LSU already was on NCAA probation for a recruiting scandal in men’s basketball that happened prior to Emmert’s arrival. Findings of more major violations typically would trigger harsh penalties.
Led by Emmert, LSU investigated the fraud allegations and said they found only five minor isolated problems, resulting in a self-imposed penalty of two lost scholarships in football. “Despite isolated incidents, the allegations were largely unfounded,” says LSU’s 82-page report on the allegations.
The NCAA accepted LSU’s findings in May 2004 and declined to put the school on probation. But the two female accusers had sued LSU, claiming they were forced from their jobs at the university in retaliation for blowing the whistle on the powerful football program.
Shortly after the NCAA case was settled and Emmert announced he was leaving for Washington, another LSU academic counseling employee backed up the women’s claims under oath, saying there were numerous examples of favoritism for football players in academics, including changed grades and having papers typed for them, according to court documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
LSU later paid the two women more than $110,000 each to settle their lawsuits.
A person who worked for LSU as an academic counselor in athletics at the time told USA TODAY Sports the investigation was a whitewash designed to minimize damage. The person asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
“They’d interviewed the people they wanted to,” the person said. “It was typical, let’s get together and do damage control and construct a narrative that will allow us to say, ‘OK, we’ve done something wrong here, but it ain’t that bad.’”
The attorney for the accusers, Jill Craft, told USA TODAY Sports, that “LSU’s self-report was way downplayed to what they were originally told and what my clients reported. In fact, the evidence that shook out over time revealed that the academic issues, especially in football, were systemic.”
Emmert disputes that.
“The facts speak for themselves,” Emmert said. “We went from an athletic program that was underperforming dramatically in the classroom to one that was performing well. We completely changed the leadership of that enterprise. We brought in a whole new (management) team. We worked closely with the NCAA and with the SEC and dealt with the issue.”
Asked if the two accusers were removed because they spoke out against the football program, Emmert said, “Not that I’m aware of, and I have no reason to believe that’s a true allegation.”
Despite admitting only isolated problems, LSU cleaned up a lot. It switched control of its academic center for athletics from the athletic department to the provost. A new $15 million academic center was opened in late 2002, and the size of the academic support staff for athletes was doubled. Football players who entered LSU from 2002-05 graduated at a rate of 77%, ranking second in the Southeastern Conference.
“It may be cynical, but with Mark Emmert, I saw a pattern,” LSU physics professor Ravi Rau said. Rau said Emmert “feathered his nest” with sports success at UConn and LSU to boost his candidacy for new jobs with bigger salaries.
Back to Seattle
In 2004, Funk persuaded Emmert to leave LSU and return to his alma mater — Washington — as president, where he became the highest-paid public university president in the nation at $762,000. There he received high marks for raising funds, community relations and helping restore the football program from its own previous scandals.
During a time of financial crisis, he also irked some faculty with two bold moves. He pushed to use taxpayer money to fund a football stadium renovation and helped make football coach Steve Sarkisian the highest-paid state employee at about $2 million.
He stands by his view that success in athletics is vital to the school because sports can be a “window into the institution” for the public.
“The image so many people carry from their exposure to athletics, especially football in a place like LSU, in many ways is the definition of the institution,” he said.
Now at the NCAA, Emmert made the equivalent of $1.6 million a year for the final three months of 2010, based on the NCAA’s tax return from that year. Though he’s been criticized for how he NCAA handled the Miami case, Emmert said that contrary to popular belief, “the president of the NCAA doesn’t get involved in infractions cases.” He doesn’t make the rules or decide punishment, both of which are determined by representatives of member schools and conferences. Investigations are delegated to his staff.
But Emmert has drawn criticism over whether he uses the job description to shield himself from blame.
In February, as controversy swirled over the Miami case, Emmert received an unusual vote of confidence from his bosses on the NCAA executive committee. It said, “the road to transformational change is often bumpy and occasionally controversial. “
The committee “unanimously affirmed its confidence in Mark’s leadership as president and its support for his ongoing efforts to implement these essential and historic reforms.”
Follow Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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