Updated 4:43 p.m., Fri., Feb. 14 with Wolfe announcing task force on sexual assault policies and mental health issues.
The University of Missouri Board of Curators has hired the St. Louis law firm of Dowd Bennett to investigate the handling of allegations of sexual assault of a former student at the Columbia campus who later committed suicide.
The curators acted after questions were raised by ESPN in a lengthy story late last month about Sasha Menu Courey, a former swimmer at Mizzou. A year before she killed herself in 2011, she said she had been raped, but the allegation did not receive much attention until after her death.
A team of attorneys from Dowd Bennett, led by former U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd, will try to determine whether employees of the university acted consistently with the law and with university policy in handling the situation. The law firm is scheduled to report its findings at the next meeting of the Board of Curators, on April 11 in Rolla.
The statement announcing the hiring of Dowd Bennett said that anyone who has information relevant to its investigation should contact the firm's attorney directly at (314) 889-7300. People who want to report information anonymously can use a confidential third-party service by calling EthicsPoint at 1-855-208-3252 or submitting a report online at www.independentcounsel.ethicspoint.com.
In the statement released by the university, Dowd said, “Our task from the Board of Curators is to do a complete investigation, get all the facts and report our findings promptly.”
Don Downing, an attorney from Webster Groves, said in the same statement:
“Ms. Courey’s story is heartbreaking, and our sympathy and prayers remain with her family, friends and teammates. The board believes that it is important to take an independent look at the facts and circumstances surrounding this tragic event, and how it was handled by university employees.”
Along with Dowd, the team conducting the investigation will include Lisa Hoppenjans, Gabriel Gore, Jim Martin and Becky Powers. The university said members of the team include two former U.S. attorneys, one member who served as the head of a sex crimes unit for the U.S. Postal Service, and another member who has worked as an investigative reporter and looked into another university’s handling of sexual assault allegations.
The university said no member of the team is a graduate of Mizzou, and the firm has never performed work for the University of Missouri.
Hiring of an outside investigator was approved by the curators at a meeting last month at the urging of university President Tim Wolfe. The father of two college freshmen, he had expressed concern after the Columbia campus had tried to address the growing controversy with several different explanations.
At a telephone news conference Friday afternoon, Downing said the university intends to give Dowd Bennett “as complete access as we can give them” to conduct the investigation. He said the board has directed all university employees to cooperate as fully as they can, though he acknowledged there may be some privacy concerns that have to be addressed.
Ultimately, he said, the curators want to find out “what the university knew, when it knew it and what it should have done under our policies.”
He would not say how many other firms were considered for the investigation, either ones that sought to take part or ones that were sought out by members of the board. Nor would he say how much money the probe would cost.
“I don’t want to prejudge how much this investigation will cost,” Downing said. “At the end of the day, we want it to be thorough and we want it to be one right.”
He praised Dowd Bennett as a firm with “tons of experience doing high-profile, complex investigations.”
Asked whether the timetable for the probe was too ambitious, Downing said Dowd Bennett had assured curators that it has the resources to have it completed by the board’s April meeting.
“We want them to jump right on this and do a thorough and complete investigation,” he said. “We want their report back promptly, because depending on the results, we may have to do some things.”
Downing expects the curators will hear the report initially in close session but will ultimately release it to the public as much as it can, taking into account privacy constraints.
He said he did not want to tell the firm whom it should interview, including Courey’s family, or direct its investigation in any way. “We’ve left that up to their independent discretion,” Downing said.
He noted that while the law firm conducts its investigation into the university’s response to the case, chancellors are proceeding with a directive from Wolfe that they review the availability of mental health services on the system’s four campuses.
“I believe that process has already started,” Downing said, “and the investigation by the independent counsel will start today.”
Columbia police also began an investigation into the case after the ESPN story appeared.
Also Friday, Wolfe announced that he had formed a task force, with representatives from the system’s campuses in Columbia, St. Louis, Rolla and Kansas City, to lead “a comprehensive review of the four campuses' respective policies, training and procedures concerning the prevention and reporting of sexual assaults and the availability of mental health services.”
He said the group’s report is due to be sent to him next month.
“Our priority is to create and support a culture of respect, safety and security for students, faculty and staff,” Wolfe said in a statement.
“To do that, we must ensure that each of our campuses have the necessary resources to educate the campus community about sexual assault and prevention, as well as an effective process for reporting such incidents, plus adequate capacity to address mental health issues among our students, faculty and staff.”
In a letter last month sent to the chancellors of the system’s four campuses, Wolfe wrote:
“I am directing each of you,” he told the chancellors, “to lead a comprehensive review of your campuses' respective policies, training and procedures concerning the prevention and reporting of sexual assaults and the availability of mental-health services. We must ensure that each of our campuses has the necessary resources to educate the campus community about sexual assault and prevention, as well as an effective process for reporting such incidents, plus adequate capacity to address mental health issues among our students, faculty and staff.
“Once we have done a complete examination of our policies and procedures on our campuses and identified any areas of need, I am pledging to make available any additional resources, including funding from the UM System budget, to our campuses to ensure that we are addressing this issue in the appropriate manner. As leaders of our campuses, I am asking you to also volunteer new ideas and new investments that are necessary to ensure the safety of our students.”
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also urged an investigation into the Courey case, saying:
“As a mother of a daughter in college, my heart breaks for this young woman and her family. We must create a safe space for all women to report sexual assault to law enforcement — and no matter who the alleged perpetrator is, there must be a thorough and professional investigation. There are real questions about why none of that happened in this case, and it's important the university figure out why and what must be done to fix it.”
Dowd Bennett released a report last year on its investigation into allegations that documents of the Missouri History Museum were destroyed, removed or concealed during the tenure of Robert Archibald, the museum’s former president. Its report found no credible evidence to support the claims.