9/2 Coach Pressler wins

Fact Finder

posted 9/02/09 @ 3:11 AM EST

Why lax matters.

So Mike Pressler has won another round and can proceed in open court with his slander lawsuit against Duke University and its now retired mouthpiece, John Burness. This is the case best recalled by a comment from one of North Carolina's most distinguished judges, who was narrowly defeated for election to the state Supreme Court. In a preliminary hearing, the judge asked aloud how anyone could be so stupid, to make the slanderous comments about Pressler that Burness did in an interview with the Long Island, New York newspaper Newsday.

Stupid, the judge's word.

Burness, a savvy operator with a good reputation who negotiated most of the shoals of the lies from prostitute and prosecutor very well, who kept the news lid on faculty (the 88) misconduct remarkably, knew what he had stepped in very quickly. Shortly after the original interview, he contacted the newspaper anew, which added his spin to its website. But few people saw this retraction; indeed those in Burness's own office who post news stories about Duke on-line each day used the original printed version despite a warning from an avid reader. Thus Duke itself carelessly spread the libel.

Here is what Duke fears: Presssler's lawsuit will pry open the veil of secrecy that the Brodhead administration has woven around the lacrosse case, protecting itself and its officials from several lawsuits. Pressler's very able lawyers will take depositions from President Brodhead and former trustee chair Bob "Wachovia" Steel among others, and then use these depositions to try to trip someone up on the witness stand. Probably before a jury. And one revelation will follow another. In this lawsuit. In others.

Less than an hour after the appeals court decision Tuesday, Duke's current mouthpiece, the ubiquitous Michael Schoenfeld had prepared a written reply. He used PR words, but here is what he meant: Duke would continue to spend millions to fight Pressler and other lax plaintiffs, screw the fact that our budget is tight and must be reduced because of losses in our endowment. Screw too that the university is acting like a used car salesman caught tampering with the odometer, squiggling any way it can to escape the mess of its own making, the concept of justice be damned.

Fact Checker will now provide the first light into Duke's immense legal defense costs in all the litigation -- facts and source offered to the Chronicle which has shamefully failed to publish them. These are from the 2007-08 school year, outdated now but they are the latest; they are also from a time before the various lawsuits heated up into more costly phases.

One law firm, which has changed its name repeatedly but we'll use Wilmer Hale, billed Duke $1,966,288 for fees alone, in this one year alone. I believe there are extra costs beyond this, like secretarial help, xerox copies, phone calls, filing of documents.

Duke is using Wilmer Hale partner Jamie Gorelick, a controversial political operative who bills in the range of $800 to $1,000 an hour at this 1,100 lawyer firm headquartered in Washington. Gorelick was Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton administration, moving over to be the extraordinarily well paid vice chair of Fannie Mae. She famously pronounced this mortgage giant which continues to teeter to be "managed safely" and could not have been more wrong.

It's a mystery why Duke retained her or Wilmer Hale, for its website reveals no expertise in matters that Fact Checker sees in the various lax lawsuits. Perhaps the connection was made through its work for Boston Scientific Corp, headed by Duke's former trustee chair Peter Nicholas. Or perhaps through Morgan Stanley, headed by Duke trustee John Mack. Or perhaps we saw sterling work for other Wilmer Hale clients: The Wall Street criminal Ivan Boesky. The polluting, homophobic Enron. Several Swiss banks accused of profiting from the Holocaust. And, oh yes, defending the crown jewels of German industry, electronics giant Siemens AG and heavy weapons maker Krupp AG accused of forcing Jews to work as slaves during the Nazi era. Welcome aboard new clients Brodhead and Bob "Wachovia" Steel. Enjoy your company in the waiting room.

Beyond Wilmer Hale, other lawyers are lapping up Duke gravy too. Our total bill for lawyers in the 2007-08 academic year was $17,040,989. Three years earlier, before the lacrosse hoax, the total was $4,316,301. No other part of the University budget has exploded so fast, thank goodness.

To illustrate how long this feeding trough will remain open, remember please that Pressler won a decision in April, 2008, for a regular trial and not arbitration. That's 18 months of delay by appeal on this one motion alone -- and Duke plans to appeal again.

Not long ago, Fact Finder discussed the Holocaust with an elderly neighbor. Why, she was asked, should we keep its memory so alive and keep digging into its depravity. Her reply was simple: "We must know."

Her words cut deep.

While not wanting to be accused of equating the hoax with the Holocaust, Fact Finder believes there is an imperative at Duke too. For example: in what was surely one of the most difficult and courageous moments of his years at Duke, President Brodhead, a lifelong educator committed to fostering growth of young people, apologized for his failure, that is, for the way the University had treated (better word: abandoned) its students in their hour of great need.

It was a partial apology: no mention of the firing of Pressler, nor the university's false official statement that he had quit, walking away from his team.

A partial apology. Brodhead did not explain why, for example, he refused at a key moment an urgent plea for a meeting made by the parents of three students facing false indictment and 30 years in jail. What was going through Brodhead's head when he said no, what were his reasons?

We also must know what our board chairman thought. He after all, stood by silently listening to Brodhead read his apology, never issuing his own nor one on behalf of the Trustees whom Steel had once said signed off on every move and supported Brodhead.

After Duke gave up lying about Pressler's having quit, Steel was the cut-throat who said the coach had to be run out of Duke despite his distinguished record, in order to clear the decks. Why didn't we extend this logic: Brodhead and Steel himself would be gone.

Further, we are entitled to resolve the question of why the lacrosse season was canceled just as the team stood on the brink of a national championship. Brodhead said the team was in physical danger, finessing the source of the danger which was black racial hotheads in Durham egged on by 88 members of our own faculty. But Steel, in what surely is a low point of his years as chair, told The New Yorker a conflicting story, that he had to end the lacrosse season because letting the players go on was bad PR. What an admission: our chair is not seeking the high moral ground or setting justice as his goal, but merely tinkering with image.

We must remember too, one of the most serious allegations against Steel. Unproven, Fact Finder must stress. Did Steel really think the best course for Duke University was to have Dave, Collin and Reade convicted, leaving them only an appeal to salvage their lives and avoid 30 years in jail. If this proves to be true, it is dastardly.

The unfinished business of the lacrosse hoax also includes fulfillment of a Brodhead promise. He said he would convene a national conference of colleges and universities, to explore how they treated students charged with crimes and how Duke's system might be changed. Fact Finder can only assume Duke's lawyers told Brodhead to cool it, lest he uncover and confirm aspects that augur against Duke. Pressed on this issue 14 months ago, Burness exploded.

Fact Finder sees a new mandate in the new academic year, repeated 1,730 times: freshmen join all other students in being subjected to a judicial system that our president admits needs repair. A system that does not treat them fairly, nor with dignity, nor with protection of their rights.

Thank you for reading Fact Finder today.

To the buffoons who always ask what my son's lax number is: I have no connection whatsoever with lacrosse or anyone who plays it. If I did, I would be proud.

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