OKLAHOMA — Attorneys for a student newspaper, a university football player, the university and an alleged crime victim have until Jan. 6 to see if they can agree what records are released in a lawsuit the athlete filed against Oklahoma State University.
Those records, say Daily O’Collegian editor Jared Janes, should explain why Vernand Morency sued the school to remain a student. Janes also hopes the records will shed light on the connection, if any, between a rape allegation and the running back’s lawsuit.
Morency was suspended from the football team in the spring of 2003 and filed a civil suit to maintain his student status and athletic eligibility. The lawsuit was dismissed Sep. 30, 2004, and an anonymous tip led O’Collegian reporters to look into the lawsuit.
After many dead ends trying to gather information from university officials, the newspaper hired a lawyer to help find the information it needed, Janes said. With the help of legal counsel, the newspaper discovered an OSU police affidavit accusing Morency of sexually assaulting a female student.
Criminal charges against him were never filed, but Janes questions the timing of the rape allegation, Morency’s suspension and the athlete’s subsequent lawsuit to keep playing football.
“We don’t know if Morency’s suit and those allegations are tied together,” Janes said. “[With the release of the records] we’ll have a good idea of why he sued and whether those two are connected.”
The newspaper’s attorney, Bob Nelon; Morency’s attorney; and the school’s lawyers were expected to meet by Dec. 2 to decide which records from the lawsuit would be released. That meeting did not happen, Nelon said.
Instead, the process became more complicated; the alleged victim’s lawyer will also have to agree on what stays secret and what goes public.
“We have to sit down and go literally page by page and see if we can reach an agreement about redactions that might satisfy everybody’s concern about privacy of third parties,” Nelon said. The parties have until Jan. 6 to agree which records to produce and which to keep sealed, or the case will go back to a judge.
After looking over the court file, most of the information should qualify for public viewing, Nelon said, with considerations given to documents that name third parties or give personal information, such as health information.
Scott Fern, counsel for the university, said he has seen the file but has not made a judgement as to what should be released. He offered no further comment on what the university would press to keep sealed.
The “runaround” that Janes said Oklahoma State University officials gave the newspaper and its staff during its investigation is nothing unusual, he said. The administration has a history of making students and staff jump through hoops to access public records, he said.
O’Collegian reporter Sean Hill, who has been covering Morency’s lawsuit and the newspaper’s records requests, said he was disappointed by the lack of action on the case. His sentiments were echoed by the Payne County judge who ordered the attorneys to meet by the January deadline.
“The court is concerned that a month has passed and nothing has occurred,” Judge Donald Worthington said during the Dec. 2 hearing, according to the O’Collegian. Almost a month had passed between Nov. 4, when the newspaper intervened to have the records opened, and Worthington’s order for the parties to work on some agreement.
“I’d like to get this resolved as quickly as possible,” Hill said. “But I’m not extremely surprised it’s going to be delayed.”
The newspaper is done publishing for the semester, so news on the case will have to wait until publication resumes in January, regardless of whether the attorneys reach a consensus on the documents earlier.
“I still don’t think there’s a great deal of understanding as to why we are trying to get access to those records,” Hill said about the students at the university. The O’Collegian has received criticism for its coverage of Morency’s lawsuit and for its request to unseal the records.
Some students, Hill said, think of the newspaper’s quest for access as a smear campaign against a popular student athlete.
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