STATE COLLEGE Pa. — Former FBI chief Louis Freeh and his investigators have conducted 200 interviews in their extensive probe of the child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, asking questions that go beyond the charges against retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and into the relationship between the football program and the administration.
Since November, when the Penn State board of trustees hired his group to examine the Sandusky case, Freeh’s team has talked to people ranging from high-level administrators to retired secretaries to current and former staffers in the athletic department. That includes many employees who worked at the football building while the late Joe Paterno was coach.
The trustees themselves also are among those to be questioned, said board chairwoman Karen Peetz, who told the Associated Press 200 people have been interviewed in all.
As Freeh seeks to fulfill his mission he is charged with in finding out how Penn State failed to stop an alleged predator in its midst, and with recommending changes aimed at preventing abuse, board members facing criticism are stressing anew that the former federal judge and his team have complete independence. They see the breadth of his investigation as a sign of that.
“They’re extremely reputable, impeccable credentials, a mandate to investigate thoroughly,” trustee Joel Myers said after a board meeting last week in Hershey. “Let the chips fall where they may so we come out of this a better institution.”
Trustees ousted Paterno on Nov. 9, four days after Sandusky was charged with dozens of sexual assault counts. Eight of 10 boys Sandusky is accused of abusing were attacked on campus, including at the football facilities, prosecutors allege.
While the charges shocked the Penn State community, Paterno’s forced departure after 61 years with the school outraged many former players and alumni, who assert the trustees acted rashly. Some alumni watchdog groups question whether Freeh’s report will be a whitewash.
Freeh, who declined interview requests, has said that he would conduct his investigation “without fear or favor,” and that he agreed to take the job only after the trustees pledged that he would be allowed to work with “total independence.” He said when he was appointed that his probe would “look carefully at the governance, protocols, decision-making and oversight within the university.”
Two people who have been interviewed said they were asked about compliance with NCAA rules and about leadership dynamics for instance, how Spanier interacted with the athletic department, and how Paterno interacted with the university administration. The people, who requested anonymity because they have been told not to speak publicly about the investigation, said they also were asked about the football program’s influence on the athletic department and across the university.
But the line of questioning has varied depending on who is being interviewed. Investigators also have asked for suggestions on other people to question.
Linda Woodring, a retired personnel specialist in the athletic department, said she spent “a couple hours” at Freeh’s State College office. She declined to reveal what she told them, saying “they asked that it remain confidential,” but that the questions focused on her job. Woodring worked at Penn State for more than 40 years and processed Sandusky’s retirement.
“They expressed to me that they were looking toward the future of Penn State to try to prevent things like this from happening again,” she said.
Trustee Keith Eckel, who was interviewed for two hours last week, said investigators were thorough.
“My interview started when I was born and went through to now. I’m serious,” Eckel said. “It covered a lot of ground.”
The session ranged from general questions about school governance how Penn State is run to specifics about Sandusky. “What did I know, yes. What did I know and when did I know it? And I’m not a good one to talk to because I didn’t know anything,” Eckel said.
Penn State President Graham Spanier left his post under pressure the same day Paterno was fired and was replaced by Rodney Erickson, who said he has not been interviewed but expects to be.
Every one of the 32-member board of trustees has or will be interviewed, said Peetz, who declined to discuss specific questions. “We’re going to tell the truth and nothing but the truth,” she said. “And so we’re being treated exactly the same as all the other people being interviewed.”
Freeh is not sharing details or giving updates to the board of trustees as a whole, but does communicate regularly with trustees Ron Tomalis and Ken Frazier, who lead the investigative committee to which he must report. Tomalis told the AP that Freeh has been getting good cooperation from university leadership, though he declined to say whether anyone has refused to be interviewed.
Tomalis also suggested that Freeh is in contact with other investigatory bodies. There are ongoing state, federal and NCAA probes into Sandusky and Penn State’s handling of the sexual abuse allegations, and Freeh’s law enforcement background is “one of the reasons why we chose (him) in the first place, because he has that ability to communicate and interact with the other investigatory agencies,” said Tomalis, Pennsylvania’s education secretary.
Eckel, a rank-and-file member of the investigative committee, said it’s appropriate to keep the trustees walled off from the investigation.
“It’s very dangerous in any investigation to have intermediary reports because you can pick up a piece of information today that’s contradicted tomorrow,” he said.
Though Freeh has not commented on what the investigation has found so far, he’s already released some preliminary suggestions aimed at improving university oversight such as enhanced background checks for staffers working with children and immediately retrieving keys, access cards and other property from people no longer associated with the university.
A spokesman for Freeh declined to say how many investigators are in State College, or reveal their names. The team includes retired law enforcement officials and former prosecutors. It’s also unclear whether investigators have spoken to any of the central players in the Sandusky case, including Spanier; former athletic director Tim Curley; Gary Schultz, a former vice president who oversaw the campus police force; or Sandusky himself.
Curley and Schultz have pleaded innocent to charges that they failed to alert police about suspected abuse and lied to the grand jury investigating of Sandusky. The former defensive coordinator, who prosecutors say abused boys at his home and on the Penn State campus long after his 1999 retirement, faces trial on 52 counts. He has pleaded not guilty.
Trustees have said they removed Paterno and Spanier over a “failure of leadership,” asserting they failed to adequately follow up on a 2002 abuse allegation that a graduate assistant, Mike McQueary, had relayed to Paterno. The coach testified to a grand jury that he passed the information to his superiors, including Schultz.
The trustees have also said Paterno had a moral obligation to do more to alert authorities outside the university. Paterno died in January at age 85, less than three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Frustrated by what they call the trustees’ rush to judgment in the frantic days and weeks following Sandusky’s arrest, some critics have questioned whether the board used the scandal as a pretext for Paterno’s ouster for other reasons. Paterno won a Division I record 409 games and two national titles over 46 seasons, but questions about when he would retire constantly swirled around the program especially over the last decade.
Paterno had said he rebuffed a request by administrators to step down in 2004, the team’s fourth losing season in five years. He asked that he and his veteran staff stay on for a shot to turn things around and Penn State won two Big Titles and 51 games over the next five seasons.
“I have no doubt based on my conversations with 22 trustees that the decision to fire Joe was not based on the Sandusky matter,” prominent donor Anthony Lubrano, who is running for a seat on the board, wrote in an email message. “Rather, for almost eight years the trustees wanted him removed (but) didn’t know how to do so without suffering the ire of the alumni.”
Many of the same critics want Freeh’s investigation to be completely independent of the trustees.
An alumni watchdog group that has endorsed Lubrano’s candidacy, Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, has said “it does not believe that the investigation can be truly independent given the involvement of the board of trustees on the investigative team.”
Peetz, in the interview in Hershey last week, noted the investigative committee’s membership includes people who are not trustees, including faculty senate chairman Daniel Hagen; Rodney Hughes, a doctoral student; and Guion Bluford Jr., a Penn State graduate and former NASA astronaut who participated in four space shuttle missions.
The board hopes to release Freeh’s findings by the fall. The board has said it will get a chance to review the report before its public release “to assure all important areas have been investigated and that there are no factual gaps,” but won’t get a chance to edit it.
Michael Rubinkam reported from Hershey, Pa.