Ex-SJSU Athletics Official Claims Misconduct Cover-Up

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The former number-two official in the San Jose State University athletic department alleges that the school's president and athletic director covered up allegations of misconduct, including sexual abuse, and retaliated against whistleblowers.

As reported by USA TODAY, former deputy athletics director Steve O’Brien alleges in a torte notice that SJSU president Mary Papazian, athletic director Marie Tuite, senior associate vice president for personnel Joanne Wright and senior associate athletics director Eileen Daley were complicit in the wrongful termination and in covering up the other allegations.

O’Brien, who was fired March 2, filed the claim on Aug. 26. In California, a person who intends to sue a public agency must first file a tort claim notice, giving the agency 45 days to investigate and potentially settle before a lawsuit can be filed. O’Brien seeks damages in excess of $25,000.

“Mr. O’Brien was fired for exposing San Jose State’s cover-up of the alleged sexual assault committed by Scott Shaw,” Christopher Boscia, O’Brien’s attorney, told USA TODAY in an emailed statement. “We also allege Mr. O’Brien was fired for uncovering widespread retaliation related to San Jose State’s NCAA compliance.”

In the notice, O’Brien said that Tuite retaliated against an employee who came forward with allegations of one baseball student-athlete gambling on sporting events, then retaliated against the same employee, accusing him of “racial profiling” after he came forward about a football player's marijuana use. Both actions by student-athletes represent NCAA violations.

O’Brien also claims that the university tried to cover up more than a dozen sexual misconduct allegations, dating back to 2009, against Shaw, the university’s director of sports medicine. Shaw was investigated twice by the university based on claims by at least 17 female swimmers that he inappropriately touched them. Shaw resigned his position last month.

O'Brien said he was fired when he refused to discipline the whistleblowers who had come forward. He claims Tuite regularly threatened employees with termination and discipline and told them, “Those who make attempts on the life of the king aren’t kept in the kingdom very long."

O’Brien said he stressed his concerns to Wright that disciplining women's swimming coach Sage Hopkins, who resurfaced the sexual assault allegations against Shaw, could be construed as retaliation against a whistleblower, and Wright asked if he was refusing to do his job. 

O’Brien “immediately understood that SJSU was giving him a ‘no-win’ choice to either discipline Hopkins on Tuite’s behalf and risk retaliating against a whistleblower, or refuse to take Tuite’s directive, and appear insubordinate,” his claim says.

A San Jose State University spokesperson said in a statement to CBS affiliate KPIX in San Francisco, “Although we disagree with many of Mr. O’Brien’s assertions, it is our practice not to comment on personnel matters.”

San Jose State University associate professor of justice studies, Sang Hea Kil, told KPIX that O'Brien's claims have credibility. Kil said she was also a whistleblower in 2013 when she was just a junior faculty member and her former department chair openly gave favors to certain people.

She said she believes there is a pattern of retaliation against whistleblowers at the university that will likely not change, even after O’Brien stepped forward with his own allegations. “His statements are very accurate to point the finger at the president because that’s a great source of where much of this corruption is getting its momentum,” Kil said. “When I whistleblowed, I was told that the stakes would be retaliation.”

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