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Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tennessee)

After 13 months and a $66,015.50 investigation, a private firm hired by the University of Tennessee found no evidence that a former director of judicial affairs had inappropriate relationships with student-athletes.

Jenny Wright, did, however, have a brief relationship with an athletics department employee who she said later threatened her job and questioned how she adjudicated disciplinary cases against athletes, according to the report.

"If you're in Knoxville long enough, you hear these rumors about Athletics running things, but if you read that report, certainly it doesn't paint them in a very good light," said Robert Kurtz, Wright's attorney.

Kurtz said his client is relieved the investigation is over and finds some vindication in the 28-page report.

"Although the individuals who made these false allegations temporarily succeeded in an effort to tarnish Ms. Wright's impeccable reputation and work ethic, the University's report conclusively finds that Ms. Wright violated no University policies and finds that these allegations are completely unsubstantiated," Kurtz said in a statement distributed to the media.

UT officials said Friday the report made no finding one way or another about Wright's allegations that the former Athletics Department employee pressured her.

"Athletics is an important part of the university, but clearly they don't run the university," said Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for communications. "The chancellor runs the university."

Wright left the university in May 2013, roughly a month after a student lodged an allegation through his attorney that he had an affair with Wright. The attorney said the unidentified student claimed Wright punished him for cutting off the romance by reprimanding him harshly in a student misconduct case.

The report is heavily redacted to remove the names of students and other information that could identify students in compliance with federal privacy laws.

The unidentified student whose accusations launched the 2013 investigation did not cooperate and was never interviewed by Beecher A. Bartlett Jr., an attorney whose firm, Kramer Rayson, was hired by UT to conduct the probe.

Wright, meanwhile, had confided in friends and coworkers as early as fall 2012 that she was concerned about her job and said she was under pressure from Athletics Director Dave Hart to perform her job "in a certain way that she felt was not in the best interest of students" and that she was afraid Hart could cause her to be reprimanded or terminated, according to the report.

Wright also told friends, and later investigators, that she briefly had a sexual relationship with former director of football operations Brad Pendergrass in 2010 and that Pendergrass had made comments to her questioning her handling of student athletes. She said Pendergrass threatened that Athletics could "take her down" and football coach " Derek Dooley could get rid of (then-Vice Chancellor for Student Life Tim Rogers), he could have his job," according to interviews with Wright and other employees in the report.

In fall 2012, Wright told the investigators she had adjudicated a case against a prominent football player with a lengthy history of misconduct. The player had lied about why he missed a meeting with her office, claiming he was in class when he did not have one at that time. He in turn was sanctioned for providing false information.

Wright said after that case she heard from Hart, who was disappointed in the case outcome and complained to both her and Rogers that he felt Wright was "over-prosecuting" cases against athletes, according to the report.

Wright said she also received a call from Pendergrass, who told her, in effect, "you think you can hide from us."

Pendergrass also told her that if she was going to "sleep with football players she needed to be careful about that," Wright told investigators.

Pendergrass, in a separate interview with investigators, denied Wright's claims, the report shows.

Wright visited the Office of Equity and Diversity with a colleague after the incident but spoke vaguely about the situation without naming Pendergrass and declined to file a formal complaint, according to the report.

Besides Wright, Pendergrass and Rogers have since left the university. Rogers retired in May 2013, a month after he learned of the allegations against Wright. Pendergrass left in February and is now in a similar role at the University of Wisconsin.

As part of the investigation, Bartlett and his colleagues interviewed 32 people, including 12 students.

Nichols pointed out that the interviews were not sworn statements. No one could be compelled to cooperate with the investigation.

The report does offer recommendations to the university:

  • It warns all Athletics Department employees against threatening other university employees in an effort to impede disciplinary actions, which is against the school's code of conduct and could result in firing.
  • It recommends written departmental policies be established in the Division of Student Life about inappropriate relationships with students or employees and says those employees should acknowledge that violations could result in termination.
  • It recommends the Athletics Department develop a written policy prohibiting relationships with employees who have responsibilities related to student discipline and compliance matters. It also would require acknowledgment from employees.

The university recently conducted a thorough review of the judicial affairs process and has overhauled the department, including changing the name to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, Nichols said.

A national search is being conducted for a new director to replace Wright.

June 7, 2014

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