Pennsylvania taxpayers are footing the $240,000 legal bill of a former state university administrator who was fired after an internal investigation substantiated allegations of financial impropriety and sexual misconduct toward students, according to a settlement agreement obtained by The Associated Press.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees 14 state universities, agreed to pay Isaac Sanders’ lawyer after he successfully defended Sanders in a federal civil lawsuit filed by six students at East Stroudsburg University. The settlement, dated June 14 and obtained by the AP through a public records request, prohibits Pennsylvania’s higher education agency and Sanders from commenting on the agreement or “disparaging the reputation, character or business of the other party.”
State System spokesman Kenn Marshall declined to say why the state decided to pay for Sanders’ lawyer, Harry Coleman, given that the higher education agency fired Sanders over his conduct toward students.
The state attorney general’s office, meanwhile, said Tuesday that it’s no longer seeking to force the students to pay $10,000 in court costs, reversing course after the AP reported last week that the federal court system had granted the state’s request to recover its litigation costs from the students. The students’ lawyer, Albert Murray Jr., had denounced the legal maneuver as outrageous and vindictive.
East Stroudsburg was initially named as a defendant in the students’ lawsuit, but was dismissed from the litigation before it went to trial. The attorney general’s office represented East Stroudsburg in the lawsuit.
“Like you, we are concerned about the chilling effect such judgments could have on victims of harassment,” Jonathan Scott Goldman, executive deputy attorney general, wrote to Murray on Tuesday. “It is neither our policy nor our desire to dissuade such victims from filing claims in a court of law.”
Goldman wrote that Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro had not been aware of the issue and “personally directed” prosecutors to withdraw their demand for court costs. The letter also said the state prosecutor’s office is “undertaking a comprehensive review of our office’s policies in this area,” and offered an apology to the students and their lawyer.
The fast-moving developments came as the state prepares to defend itself from a $50 million lawsuit that Sanders filed last week against the State System, alleging wrongful termination.
The former students, now in their 20s and 30s, said Sanders used his high-powered job to offer them gifts, scholarships and campus jobs, then sexually harassed or assaulted them. East Stroudsburg fired Sanders in 2008, saying an investigation by its outside law firm had shown he “exercised exceedingly poor judgment concerning these individuals.”
Sanders, who was the university’s vice president for advancement, has always denied sexually touching any of the men, and a civil jury ruled in his favor in 2014. He has never been charged with a crime, though it remains unclear the extent to which local, state and federal law enforcement agencies ever investigated the students’ allegations.
The State System initially refused to provide a defense for Sanders in the civil suit, citing a provision of state law that says government lawyers aren’t obligated to defend an employee for a “bad faith exercise of his authority, malicious or outside the scope of his employment.”
The same law says that if the employee ultimately prevails, the state may, at its discretion, reimburse the employee’s legal fees.
Marshall, the State System spokesman, said Coleman was paid out of the state’s employee liability self-insurance program. The payment was made several months after the students exhausted their appeals.
Sanders’ federal lawsuit claims the State System fired him and ruined his reputation based on unfounded “rumors and innuendo.” The lawsuit said racist university officials conspired against Sanders, who is black, as are the students who say he abused them.
Sanders has “fought the good fight every round, and he won. And now this is the opportunity to get his reputation back,” Coleman said in an interview. “What is a reputation that has been run over, thrown under the bus, trampled, what is that worth? We believe $50 million is an appropriate figure to start.”
The investigative report that state officials relied on to fire Sanders has never been released to the public, and it was sealed by the trial judge based on an agreement between Sanders, the former students and the State System. Nor did jurors get to see the report after the judge blocked the students from using it as evidence.
The students’ lawyer has since demanded its public release. Coleman said that Sanders doesn’t care if the report comes out.
“We could care less if it’s disclosed. We want all 52 cards in the deck out there,” he said. “We’re not hiding anything. ... We see no reason not to disclose that report.”
The State System has long declined to make public its 2008 investigation on Sanders, citing the court’s 2010 sealing order and exceptions to the state’s open-records law.