Friday, April 28, 2017

VIRGINIA TECH AND THE MONEY: SINKING TO NEW LOWS


The money side of the Virginia Tech story, however, is not limited to what has been described up to this point. Concerns for fundraising appeared to remain a high priority based on other actions quietly being taken in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.

At the time of the shootings, most families were unaware that Virginia Tech had previously scheduled the single largest fundraising event in the school’s history to formally announce the public phase of its $1 billion Capital Campaign. That gala was originally scheduled for the last weekend of April 2007, less than two weeks after the massacre. Appropriately the event was canceled; however, what neither the families nor most others knew was that on the afternoon of April 16th, even before all of the dead bodies had been removed from Norris Hall, efforts had begun within the administration to resurrect the Capital Campaign initiative. In an email sent from then Chairman of the “silent” phase of Virginia Tech’s Capital Campaign, Gene Fife, to Elizabeth Flanagan, Vice President of Alumni Affairs, Mr. Fife proposed that the “gala/party” was inappropriate in wake of the tragedy. He went on to propose an idea where they could “have a large but low key working dinner during which we review the facts of today, what we have and will be doing with the situation and to solicit support both financially and morally.” He then concluded with, “The only alternative I see is to cancel the planned events and reschedule it at another time---probably next fall.” The fundraising effort was so important to the Virginia Tech administration that it could not wait; school personnel, who could have been used to deal with other, immediate aspects of the tragedy, were siphoned off.  Through the extraordinary efforts of the Virginia Tech staff the entire event for over 700 attendees was quietly rescheduled by April 24th, only eight days following the worst school shooting in American history. The efficiency and thoroughness in rescheduling the fundraiser was in stark contrast to many aspects of the school’s dealing with the families and the survivors.

A group of senior administrators were informed of the results of this rescheduling effort during a private meeting held on April 24th, when they were informed that the new date for the event had been set for October 20, 2007. Coincidently, April 24th was also the exact same day Teresa and Mike Pohle buried their son, Mike Jr.

Neither the families nor general public had any idea of this new plan. In addition, they had no idea of the relationship between the September deadline for formal submission of the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund disbursement protocol and the largest fundraising gala in Virginia Tech’s history to be held one month later. Virginia Tech stuck to that schedule, yet kept it very quiet. On October 20, 2007 their event proceeded as planned.

In putting together a simple chronology of events you come up with a disturbing question: Did the school develop and stick to a cold and calculating plan to keep the families in the dark and reap huge amounts of money based on a horrific tragedy? Remember, even while the families were struggling, they were being pressed to complete a process dictated completely by the school, and without transparency.

Given the above, the timing of the school’s dealings with families relative to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and the timing of their Capital Campaign party attended by over 700 donors appears to be far more than mere coincidence. In other words, Virginia Tech’s fundraising plans secretly were set in stone only eight days following the shootings, and remained the school’s secret. This also suggests that the clear objective was to ensure that any funds intended to support the families had to be identified by Virginia Tech before the rescheduled kick-off for the public phase of their $1 billion Capital Campaign event. The whole thing was laid out like clockwork!

On October 21, 2007 an article appeared in the Roanoke Times discussing the fundraising gala held the previous night. Mr. Gene Fife, Chairman of the “private phase” of Virginia Tech’s Capital Campaign, was quoted in that article with a statement that tore through the heart of the families. His statement was: “You can’t wash it away and pretend it didn’t exist or happen; on the other hand, you can’t just wallow in it forever.”

On October 30, 2007, nine days following that major fundraising event, President Steger released a statement to the media discussing the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund and the families. In his statement, Steger said that it would have required the “wisdom of Solomon” to determine the best use of the funds donated to Virginia Tech. He added that even though the school had tremendous needs, they (the administration) decided to disperse the “bulk of the funds” to the families. All along, school statements appeared to be a calculated effort designed to convey the impression that Virginia Tech was focusing on the needs of the families first. In fact, as I have pointed out, the families were never brought into the equation. They were never consulted and were given a take-it-or-leave-it deadline to participate in the fund.

In his comments President Steger stated, “The University never actively solicited monies.” Steger chose his words carefully; they were clever and danced around the truth. He immediately raised the families’ suspicions. Their suspicions were fed by a rumor that major donors were quietly being given guidance on the timing of their donations. Specifically, the rumor was that major donations should be delayed until after the families had received their money. That way the donations would go directly to the Capital Campaign and would not be considered part of the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund.

By reviewing the Capital Campaign financial results in the months following April 16th there appears to be an interesting pattern consistent with and supporting that rumor. The table below shows the gains in the value of Virginia Tech’s endowment fund by month from May to December of 2007. For reference, the fiscal calendar for both Virginia Tech and the Virginia Tech Foundation ends June 30 of each year. With that as background, note the monthly increases for May and June following the shootings, then for the next three months where they drop considerably, followed by the dramatically upward movement starting in October of 2007, when their Campaign fundraiser was held.

Virginia Tech Capital Campaign
Monthly Increase in Value

Month
 & Year
Capital Campaign
Total
(Millions)
Monthly
Increase
(Millions)
May 2007
$501,849,743
+ $ 15.7
June 2007
$524,731,181
+ $ 23.0
July 2007
$533,258,936
+ $ 8.5
August 2007
$541,988,603
+ $ 8.7
September 2007
$551,477,067
+ $ 9.5
October 2007
$590,079,731
+ $ 38.6
November 2007
$601,766,987
+ $ 11.7
December 2007
$633,537,102
+ $ 31.8






Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE HOKIE SPIRIT MEMORIAL FUND

 
In the days immediately following the shootings of April 16, 2007 there was a tremendous outpouring of kindness and caring for the victims and their families. In the New Jersey town where the Pohles lived, neighbors and businesses essentially wrapped their arms around the Pohle family and watched over them. Food was sent by the local supermarket and restaurants; their daily chores were done; people came to talk and make sure they were ok; their parish priest spent hours with them. The town did anything the Pohles asked and, no doubt, the same thing was happening for all the other families directly affected.

Not long after the massacre we learned that the Virginia Tech Foundation, a separate financial entity from Virginia Tech, had established a fund to hold the donations that began to pour into the school after the tragedy. That fund was called the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (HSMF)—the community of Virginia Tech, from its football team to its staff, faculty, students, and graduates, is known as “the Hokies.”

The families were in no shape to understand what was happening because they were still in shock; they were, nevertheless, extremely touched by the thoughtfulness and generosity of so many.

As the days after the shootings began turning into weeks, in early June of 2007, the families learned that the school had decided that of the $7 million reportedly donated to date, $3.2 million dollars would be converted into thirty-two $100,000 scholarships in memory of each person killed. (The thirty-two $100,000 scholarships were separate from the $100,000 in settlement money the families of those killed received.) There were no collaborative discussions between the Virginia Tech Foundation, school administrators, and the families relative to that decision. The families put the best interpretation on that fact, reasoning they were not consulted out of respect for the tremendous pain and horror in their lives and the fact they were focused on trying to heal. That sort of reasoning was completely understandable and appreciated because it allowed time for more important family matters to be attended to. 

But, as the news of Virginia Tech’s decision to create these scholarships spread through the families, a number of them began to raise questions and objections about the one-sided decision-making that was going on. Ultimately, the school, hearing the families’ concerns, moved away from its scholarship idea.

The next major announcement concerning the Hokie Fund came through the media, not the school. In early July, less than two months after the shootings, the media reported that Mr. Kenneth Feinberg had agreed to work pro bono for the Virginia Tech administration relative to how the HSMF funds would be disbursed after the fund was closed, which the school had determined would be August 1st. Although the involvement of Mr. Feinberg meant little to the families at the time, a number of the them wondered why the administration was in such a great hurry to close the HSMF so quickly, and many of the families wondered why the fund cut off was treated the way it was—with a short deadline. At the time, the families suspected nothing nefarious, but the only “answer” they heard, once again coming through newspapers as opposed to any direct communication with them, had to do with the administration wanting to disburse the funds to the families as quickly as possible. That explanation appeared to be a very kind and thoughtful gesture on the school’s part; however, there was never a reason given as far as to why donations would no longer be accepted for the families. After August 1st, the school decided that additional donations received by the school would be deposited in Virginia Tech’s Hokie Scholarship Fund. As was the case all along, this was another decision made solely by Virginia Tech. The families were too distraught to question what was taking place and the timing behind Tech’s actions did not make any sense to them until later in the fall of 2007. After receiving criticism for their handling of the HSMF, school officials ultimately decided that the official close date for HSMF donations would be delayed until August 15, 2007.

During this same time, the families were informed that Feinberg, working under the direction of the school administration, was developing a formal protocol to be sent to “eligible” families detailing the conditions under which each claimant could apply for a disbursement from donations placed into the HSMF.  The first draft of that document was delivered to families for review in mid-July. Additionally, a series of meetings with the families was conducted by Mr. Feinberg; however, the families felt their “input” had little impact and that the end result had already been determined. This was confirmed for the families when they read Feinberg’s own words he had published in the August 27, 2007 edition of the Virginia Law Review where he wrote about the HSMF disbursement process: “It is obvious, however, with fixed amounts being predetermined and no discretion being afforded the Fund Administrator in the calculation of individual awards, that requested hearings will not include any discussion of adjusting compensation…”. The disbursements and the amounts were fixed by Virginia Tech alone. In other words, these meetings were a meaningless exercise under the guise of open communication with the families and Mr. Feinberg’s hands were tied.

The following month, on August 15, 2007, just four months following the shootings, Feinberg distributed his “Final Protocol,” which documented the conditions under which impacted families had to comply in order to apply for disbursement of funds that were contained in the HSMF.  That protocol was required to be notarized and returned no later than September 15, 2007 in order to participate in the program. At that time the total amount of donations in the HSMF, publicly reported by school officials, were reported to be just under $8.5 million, and would be disbursed during the month of October to approximately 80 individuals/families.

Over the course of the summer while this was going on there was also plenty being written about the HSMF in the papers, and reported in the news. By now, the families began to suspect what was happening—the school had grabbed control of the money and was determined to get the families out of the picture as quickly as possible. Virginia Tech would use the tragedy to profit the best it could. The families had next to no input on decisions regarding how the funds would be distributed, and the school would get free reign over the enormous amount of money flooding in within a scant few months following the mass killings. The families felt horrible. The money was not the issue—the issue was the school’s seizing this pot of gold and profiting from the death of its faculty and students.

By mid-summer, the press was extensively reporting the generosity of individuals and corporations, and the huge amounts of money flowing into the school.  It was about this time that the families began to get anonymous and public criticism because of the money involved. The families were accused of seeking to profit from the death, or wounding, of their loved ones. The callous individuals hurtling these barbs only saw the millions coming into the HSMF, while the school administration was fully engaged with its public relations firm. The goal was to drive Tech’s communications efforts toward publicly speaking out about its concerns for the families, even though the school had pressing financial needs as well. (To be continued. I will examine the attacks on family members later as well as evidence the school’s may have siphoned off money and put it in Tech’s Capital Campaign)


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

VIRGINIA TECH: INCOMPETENCE AND DECEIT


As my previous posting point out, a comparison of the shootings at Columbine, the Appalachian School of Law, and Virginia Tech shows disquieting common traits: repeated failures to heed warning signs, poor and incompetent decisions on the days of the shootings, and a willingness to deny facts, deceive, and in some cases, engage in out-and-out lies.

Unfortunately, what we learn from the Virginia Tech tragedy, and the other two school shootings discussed in this chapter, is that authorities will investigate only if they can do so with minimal or no repercussions to any person or institution. We learn that people will engage in specious arguments to cover up wrongdoings.

Part of the healing process after any disaster is learning from it so that even if we cannot prevent all future occurrences we can at least mitigate the damage. The problem in healing from school shootings is that there is no precise algorithm we can learn to help solve the problem. But there are patterns and indicators we can learn from that could go a long way toward identifying potential killers and preventing these campus massacres. However, the confluence of deceit, denial of facts, and incompetence on the part of some influential politicians, law enforcement officials, and school administrators prevent us from learning. When people engage in well orchestrated and cunning campaigns of denial and deception, there is no way we can ever comfort the grieving parents by saying that we will learn from your child’s death and we can help prevent other killings from learning. When people engage in well orchestrated and cunning campaigns of denial and deception, there is no way we can ever comfort the grieving parents by saying that we will learn from your child’s death and we can help prevent other killings. (To be continued)


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

VIRGINIA TECH AND DISTURBING SIMILARITIES

 
Appalachian School of Law, Columbine, Virginia Tech
           
Within hours of Cho’s slaughter I could see the disturbing similarities between the law school and Tech shootings. Within days those similarities became frightening parallels. I was so troubled that I wrote an article for our local newspaper:

The Rappahannock Record April 26, 2007

“Virginia Tech: Let the Cover-Up Begin”

       The sad truth is that the terrible loss of life at Virginia Tech could have been prevented if state and school officials in Blacksburg would have learned the lessons from the shootings at the Appalachian School of Law on January 16, 2002. The parallels between the two tragedies are staggering.

       Angela Dales, the mother of our granddaughter, was the student killed at the law school. In the five years since that tragedy we have repeatedly sought answers. But we have been met with disingenuous expressions of sympathy followed by outright refusal to answer our questions. The same will happen to the families of those lost at Virginia Tech.

       Students, staff, and faculty warned law school officials that the murderer, Peter Odighizuwa, was a threat and they feared for their safety. The same is true at Virginia Tech—there were warnings about Seung Hui Cho.

       Five years ago, no alarm was sounded on the second floor of the law school building after the initial shootings—an alarm that might have saved Angela Dales’ life and prevented the wounding of three other students. At Virginia Tech, over two hours lapsed between the first shootings and the second. And, no alarms were sounded!

       Court documents indicate that several weeks before the law school shooting, female staff and faculty members—citing Odighizuwa— expressed concern for their safety. The President of the Appalachian School is said to have responded, “Oh you women and your hormones, nothing will happen.” The President of Virginia Tech knew of the first shooting and did nothing to immediately close or alert the campus. Both men should be fired.

       Both Peter Odighizuwa and Seung Hui Cho had harassed fellow students and the schools knew about it.

       Both Peter Odighizuwa and Seung Hui Cho had been referred to mental facilities or were seeking psychiatric care, and the schools knew about it.

       The office of former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore refused to help us get access to the investigation report of a threatening e-mail Angela Dales received prior to the shooting. The same will happen to Virginia Tech families when they turn to state officials for help.

       The Virginia Tech families will learn the bitter truth that in dealing with these tragedies, all elected officials want to do is plant a tree, put up a plaque, or adopt a bill commemorating the shooting. None of them, Republican or Democrat, have the will or backbone to really investigate the causes of the tragedy and propose laws, or enact regulations, that will begin to deal with the prevention of these atrocities.

       Since the horrible events on April 16th the phrase, “Let the healing begin” has been repeated over and over again. What would be closer to reality is, “Let the cover up begin.”

       The sad truth is that when put to the test, numerous elected officials and far too many members of the legal and law enforcement professions show that our beliefs and values mean little or nothing to them. Values such as honesty, courage, integrity—and justice— frequently disappear in a fog of deceit, treachery, and bureaucratic incompetence.

       In our case, when the words of law enforcement as well as law school and elected officials took on a pejorative, even a disparaging tone—our pain deepened. When we turned to these individuals to find answers, to find “justice”—we found intellectual fraud and deceit. The same will likely happen to the families who lost loved ones at Virginia Tech.

       What could be done to prevent another tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech? A great deal! First, the Virginia legislature should adopt a law stating that if a faculty or staff member identifies a student as mentally unbalanced and potentially violent, the student must be referred to mental health authorities for evaluation. At the same time an alert should be issued to all gun stores banning the sale of weapons and ammunition to that individual. Any person selling a gun to someone for whom a warning has been issued should serve a mandatory, long jail sentence.

       Second—and by law—all educational facilities in Virginia, both public and private, should have in place a mandatory emergency plan. All students and faculty should be aware of the plan, and that plan should be periodically rehearsed as are fire drills.

Third, in the event of any shooting on school grounds, the school should immediately be closed. Police should be called and posted around the facility until it is clear that the shooter has been captured— not just a suspect as was the case at Virginia Tech.

At the time I wrote the article, I did not realize how accurate my words were, nor did I realize how they reflected the denials, deceptions, and lies that had taken place at Columbine. I was writing based on my personal experieces with the Appalachian School of Law and state officials. In fact, as I did research for this book, the parallels between the shootings at Columbine, the Appalachian School of Law, and Virginia Tech became glaringly apparent.

The first deceit that all three school shootings share is the assertion that no one saw the threat or had any hint that the killers were violent and possibly mentally unstable. Let’s look at some of the facts:

ColumbineAccording to David Cullen’s examination of that tragedy in his book Columbine, the police had very clear and specific evidence that Eric Harris was a threat and was planning violence. In his chapter entitled, “Telling Us Why,” he examines the repeated complaints made by Judy and Randy Brown that Harris had threatened their children’s safety. “Thirteen months before the massacre, Sheriff’s Investigators John Hicks and Mike Guerra had investigated one of the Brown’s [sic] complaints. They’d discovered substantial evidence that Eric was building pipe bombs. Guerra had considered it serious enough to draft an affidavit for a search warrant against the Harris home. For some reason the warrant was never taken before a judge. Guerra’s affidavit was convincing. It spelled out all the key components: motive, means, and opportunity.”

“A few days after the massacre, about a dozen local officials slipped away from the Feds and gathered clandestinely in an innocuous office in the county Open Space Department building. The purpose was to discuss the affidavit for a search warrant. How bad was it? What would they tell the public?”

“Guerra was driven to the meeting, and told never to discuss it outside the group. He complied.”

“The meeting was kept secret, too. That held for five years. March 22, 2004, Guerra would finally confess it happened, to investigators from the Colorado attorney general. He described it as ‘one of those cover-your-ass meetings.’”

“District Attorney Dave Thomas attended the meeting. He told the group he found no probable cause for the investigators to have executed the draft warrant—a finding ridiculed once it was released. He was formally contradicted by the Colorado attorney general in 2004.”

“At a notorious press conference ten days after the murders, Jeffco [Jefferson County] officials suppressed the affidavit and boldly lied about what they had known. They said they could not find Eric’s Web pages, they found no evidence of pipe bombs matching Eric’s descriptions, and had no record of the Browns meeting with Hicks. Guerra’s affidavit plainly contradicted all three claims. Officials had just spent days reviewing it. They would repeat the lies for years.”

“Several days after the meeting, Investigator Guerra’s file on his investigation of Eric disappeared for the first time.”

According to Cullen, a grand jury report released on September 16, 2004, found that the Guerra file should have been stored in three separate locations, both physical and electronic. All three were destroyed, it concluded—apparently during the summer of 1999. The Grand Jury described that destruction as “troubling.”

Appalachian School of Law—In the case of the law school, there is ample evidence that the Appalachian School of Law knew that the shooter, Peter Odighizuwa, was a threat. For example, his outbursts on campus—including throwing chairs and cursing people—were so well known and documented that he was barred from going into the Student Services office unless he was escorted by the president of the Student Bar Association or the dean, but he ignored those orders and went into the office, harassing its employees. His outbursts were so frequent and so widely discussed that he was nicknamed “the shooter,” a title that was sadly prophetic.

Odighizuwa’s penchant for violence was known even in Richmond. The morning after the shooting, Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s spokesperson admitted to news media that Odighizuwa had a history of mental instability that school officials knew about. The governor was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Law School at the time of the shooting.

The most damning evidence that officials of the law school had prior knowledge of the threat Odighizuwa posed can be found in court documents filed in Wise County, Virginia. According to those documents, which were filed as part of a lawsuit against the school, three female staff members, just weeks before the killings, complained to school officials about Odighizuwa, expressing fear for their safety as well as the safety of others in the school. The complaint was made in a school meeting. The school’s top three officials—President Lucius Ellsworth, Dean L. Anthony Sutin and Associate Dean Paul Lund—were said to be in attendance at the meeting. The documents assert that Ellsworth responded to the complaint by saying, “You women and your hormones and your intuition … there is nothing for you to be afraid of … it will be ok.” Within a month, Odighizuwa gunned down Dean Anthony Sutin, Professor Blackwell, and student, Angela Dales. He wounded three female students. Incredibly the school maintains that it had no indication or warning that Odighizuwa was potentially violent.

Virginia Tech—At Blacksburg too, the warning signs were readily apparent and ignored. Professor Lucinda Roy documents her as well as others’ attempts and to get Cho psychological help. In Chapter Two of, “No Right to Remain Silent,” she writes the following:

“… As soon as I read the poem that Seung-Hui Cho had written earlier for Nikki Giovanni’s class, I realized why she had asked me to look at it. The tone was angry and accusatory, and it appeared to be directed at Nikki and her students.”

“I followed a series of protocols I had developed during my time as chair. I consulted with trusted colleagues in the department—in this case Professor Fred D’Aguiar, who was serving with me as director of Creative Writing, and Cheryl Ruggiero, an instructor who had served as assistant chair in the Department of English. (Normally I would also have consulted Professor Nancy Metz, associate chair of English, but she was on research leave in the fall of 2002.) Fred, Cheryl, and I agreed that Nikki had been absolutely right to be concerned. Seung (the name he wished to go by) had read the poem aloud in class, and although his piece could perhaps be viewed as immature venting it could also be interpreted in a more threatening way. …”

“On October 18, 2005, I alerted units that dealt with troubled students at Virginia Tech that we had a serious problem. It was the first in a series of e-mails I sent and phone calls I made about Seung. In one of the e-mail notes I characterized what had occurred in this way:
v
            In the poem he castigates all of the class, accusing them of genocide and cannibalism because they joked about eating snake and other animals. He says he is disgusted with them, and tells them they will all ‘burn in hell.’ He read the poem with dark glasses on … His name is Seung-Hui Cho and I had him in my lecture class last year. The students in Nikki’s class have asked for assistance because they are intimidated by him … Nikki no longer feels comfortable teaching the student, and students have also requested relief. As I understand it … I can remove Seung from Nikki’s class as long as I offer him a viable alternative. I will be suggesting that he take an Independent Study in lieu of the class, and that he work with either me or Fred D’Aguiar. Nikki, who is never rattled by anything, is genuinely concerned about this student’s behavior.”

Then on page 32 Roy asserts, “I alerted several units (about Cho)  at once: the division of Student Affairs, the Cook Counseling Center (CCC), the College of Liberal Arts and Human Services (CLAHS), and the Virginia Tech Police Department (VTPD).”  (To be continued)