Spanier says he would have intervened if he'd known about Sandusky
Former Penn State President Graham Spanier, mostly silent since the child sexual abuse scandal that rocked State College last fall, began a national media offensive on Wednesday to defend himself against accusations arising from the Jerry Sandusky saga.
But as he appeared on television and in interviews in The New Yorker magazine, and his attorneys held a news conference in Philadelphia, crisis-communications experts wondered whether his strategy had more to do with long-term legal concerns than with rescuing his soiled reputation.
When people in Spanier's position work with their lawyers on a media strategy, “They're asking one question: What is it that we want the people that matter to us to believe to be true?” said Steven Silvers, a crisis-management expert at Denver-based public relations firm GBSM.
Spanier headed Penn State for 16 years. Trustees ousted him from the president's office last fall when a state grand jury charged that Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, sexually abused boys on and around the campus for more than a decade.
Although prosecutors did not charge Spanier, a university-commissioned report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh last month concluded that Spanier, the late coach Joe Paterno and university administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz concealed allegations against Sandusky. Curley and Schultz are charged in the alleged cover-up.
Spanier turned to his university-paid legal team to issue a stinging rebuttal to the Freeh report. Former federal judge Timothy Lewis, a member of Spanier's legal team, called the report's conclusions about Spanier “blundering and indefensible” and reiterated Spanier's claims that he never was informed that allegations against Sandusky involved child sexual abuse.
Attorneys Tom Farrell, counsel for Schultz, and Caroline Roberto, counsel for Curley, issued a statement repeating their contention that the Freeh report is flawed.
Stef Goodsell, a spokesperson for Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, said: “We stand by our report.” A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office declined to comment, citing an ongoing grand jury probe into the matter.
Lewis described Spanier, who did not attend the news conference, as “a talented individual and an exceptional human being” who has “suffered greatly and undeservedly.”
Spanier's lawyers, who issued an 18-page critique of the Freeh report, said their probe concluded that Freeh's investigation failed to consider evidence that would have supported Spanier's claims.
In his interview in The New Yorker, Spanier attacked.
“The Freeh report is wrong. It's unfair, it is deeply flawed, it has many errors and omissions,” he told writer Jeffrey Toobin, adding that many of the people Freeh's agents interviewed described them as conducting a “witch hunt.”
In an interview on ABC News, Spanier said, “I wish in hindsight I would have known more about Jerry Sandusky and his terrible, terrible past so I could have intervened,” adding that he himself had been repeatedly abused by his father.
“I've had four operations as an adult to correct injuries inflicted by my father. I've never met anyone who had a higher level of awareness about such issues than I had.”
Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of Levick, a Washington-based communications firm, said the news conference — which coincided with the release of the article and TV interview — looked like legal maneuvering.
“From the university's point of view and from Spanier's reputational point of view, it's a poor move because it keeps the issue alive and it creates a conflict. It enables the media to report on his resistance, and that's not good reputationally for him or for the school.
“But as a litigation strategy, it may be central to his litigation. It's a way to put it on the record that he disputes the Freeh report, which is important if he's going to be fighting criminal or civil litigation,” Grabowski said.
Brad Phillips, president of New York-based Phillips Media Relations, offered three reasons for the media campaign: repairing Spanier's reputation, trying to head off criminal charges by “working the referees in advance” or trying to ensure that if he ever faces a jury, at least one juror's perceptions will have been shaped by his argument.
Spanier's goal could be “to precondition a jury pool or turn the media into making this, again, a two-sided story, or add a level of complexity so people say, ‘We're never going to get to the bottom of this,' ” Silvers said.
“What he's trying to do right now is get across one truth,” Silvers said. “That truth is that the Freeh report is not a slam dunk. If I had thought that it explained everything that needed to be explained, now I'm thinking, well, there's more to this than there was before.”
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or email@example.com. Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report.