State Sought To Avoid Firms With UConn Ties
The choice of an out-of-state law firm to represent the University of Connecticut in a high-profile civil matter is not sitting well with everyone.
None of the firms that submitted bids to represent UConn would complain for the record about the choice of a Philadelphia firm to conduct an investigation into how the university handled accusations of sexual misconduct against a professor. But in background conversations with the Law Tribune, some attorneys said the work should have stayed in state.
"In this economy, that's at least $1 million in legal work that will be going out of state," said one prominent lawyer who stated that he has heard similar complaints from attorneys at a number of firms.
Attorney General George Jepsen announced last week that the Philadelphia firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath was awarded the contract to represent UConn's Board of Trustees. The firm is expected to conduct an independent investigation into how the university handled internal complaints about Robert Miller, a former music professor accused of sexual misconduct involving students.
"It seems that the Attorney General is essentially saying that there's no firm in Connecticut that is qualified to do this job," another lawyer familiar with the bidding process said. Neither attorney wanted to speak publicly, out of concerns that it might jeopardize their chances to do legal work for the state in the future. Of the firms considered by the AG's Office, at least 18 are Connecticut based or have Connecticut offices.
Although the contract with Drinker Biddle caps the price tag for the initial legal bill at $250,000, state officials acknowledged the cost would likely go higher, subject to legislative approval. If the Penn State University sex scandal a few years ago is any indication of just how much an internal investigation might cost, the ultimate cost could be well over $1 million.
Drinker Biddle was one of 28 law firms that answered the request for bids to represent UConn's Board of Trustees. The request was made this summer following revelations that UConn officials didn't take prompt action against the professor, Robert Miller. According to police reports that were made public in June, allegations of sexual misconduct against Miller were known by at least one university employee as far back as 2006.
A committee was created to narrow down the applications to six finalists, which included the Connecticut firms of Day Pitney and Wiggin and Dana. The other finalists included New Jersey-based McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, which has two offices in Connecticut, and three firms with no Connecticut ties — Drinker Biddle; Ballard Spahr Stillman & Friedman; and Pepper Hamilton.
While the Attorney General's Office declined to provide an answer to why it did not pick one of the Connecticut finalists, the selection committee in its report said "the fact that a firm is currently representing, advising or acting on behalf of the University of Connecticut, or that it has done so in the recent past, could be a detriment to this representation, as it could be seen as compromising the firm's independent obligations to the board of trustees."
All of the Connecticut firms that were on the short list, the committee said it is memorandum, had represented UConn or included members who taught at its law school.
A number of applicants that did not make the short list of finalists are Connecticut based or have significant Connecticut offices: Hinckley Allen & Snyder; Bingham McCutchen; Rome McGuigan; Kelley Drye & Warren; Jackson Lewis, Halloran & Sage and Olgletree Deekins.
All of those firms, the committee said in a report, were ruled out because they lacked experience in one or more practice areas that are relevant to the investigation. Those practice areas include managing complex internal investigations, criminal law, labor and employment law, privacy law and sexual misconduct.
The due diligence investigations firm Kroll submitted a proposal, but was not considered because "it is not a law firm," the committee said in its report.
Two Connecticut solos who did not make the short list were Andrew O'Toole, a former assistant U.S. attorney, and Charles D. Houlihan Jr. The committee found that neither of the solo practices "had adequate staff resources to handle the scope of the tasks."
Miller is also accused of molesting children off campus, including several boys who attended a camp for sick children. In its request for proposals, the Attorney General's Office, which normally represents state agencies in legal matters, explained that it sought an outside firm "because of the complexity of the issues and the variety and magnitude of resources required."
The selection committee consisted of UConn law school Dean Timothy S. Fisher, Assistant Attorneys General Henry Salton and Kimberly Massicotte. In making its determination, the committee wrote in its memorandum about its selection that Drinker Biddle "was clearly the best choice." The firm has 650 lawyers in 11 offices in the U.S. and one in London.
"Drinker Biddle was the only firm that presented a team whose members (as opposed to the team as a whole) had all of the skills and experience sought" in the state's request for proposal for the UConn work, the memorandum says. "Not only did the lead team members have in-depth experience working with institutions of higher education, but also they had experience in conducting investigations of allegations of sexual misconduct at colleges and universities."
According to the contract Drinker Biddle signed with the state, the firm will conduct an institutional review to determine whether university policies or state laws were violated by the university in its handling of the allegations against Miller. If evidence of a crime is uncovered, that information will be shared with law enforcement authorities, the contract says.
An important part of the investigation will include whether the university violated Title IX, the contract says. Under federal law, "once a school has notice of a possible sexual assault or sexual harassment of students, it must take prompt and effective steps" to eliminate it, the contract says.
Under the contract, Drinker Biddle will bill at a rate of $300 per hour for an associate. That rate was not the highest or the lowest, but was "within the range of rates established by the other firms," the hiring memorandum says.
In its decision to recommend the hiring of Drinker Biddle, the committee pointed out that the firm had no past or present relationship with UConn. That is important, the memorandum says, because the firm's independence from the school will not be "reasonably" called into question.
Drinker Biddle has represented colleges in similar matters. But like those who were denied the job, the firm was tight-lipped about its reaction to being hired, as it was when asked to discuss work on behalf of its past clients.
"We can confirm we have a cadre of educational institutions we've worked with in the past, and that does include allegations of sexual misconduct," said Jennifer Morinigo, the firm's director of communications. "Our clients value our discretion in this, and we tend not to comment." •