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Filing claims Baylor officials may have destroyed emails; university says documents weren't related to sexual assault scandal

Baylor University officials pushed back forcefully Wednesday night against a brief filed in federal court earlier in the day that claims school leaders urged staff to destroy emails and other evidence related to a wide-ranging sexual abuse scandal.

The Pat Neff Hall at Baylor University on Feb. 15, 2017.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Baylor detailing its electronic review. 

Baylor University officials pushed back forcefully Wednesday night against a brief filed in federal court earlier in the day that claims school leaders urged staff to destroy emails and other evidence related to a wide-ranging sexual abuse scandal.

The document, the latest missive in an ongoing federal lawsuit against Baylor, was filed by former Democratic state Rep. Jim Dunnam and Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who are representing several anonymous women who have sued the school on the grounds that it failed to comply with the gender-equity law Title IX.

Within hours of the document's filing, Baylor officials said they'd "conducted an in-depth electronic review" and found the message at the heart of the brief had been mischaracterized. 

According to the filing, Baylor's interim President David Garland sent an email to a "high-level Baylor athletics official" on June 14, 2016, that said: "Thanks [name redacted]. I would erase the emails."

Garland’s message was sent the day before Dunnam and Dunn’s lawsuit was filed, but it was not clear what emails Garland was referring to. His June 14 email did not have a subject line and did not appear to be sent as a reply.

Jason Cook, a Baylor spokesman, said Wednesday, “We are not aware of any facts to support the assertion that the email is related to sexual assault at this stage.”

In a statement sent hours later, Cook said the email was related to Baylor's athletics conference: "Baylor has determined Interim Athletic Director Todd Patulski sent an email" to Garland on June 14 "with a detailed report on a recent Big 12 meeting which included confidential information on Big 12 expansion issues." Garland thanked Patulski by email and asked him to delete the message, Cook said. "Baylor will discuss these facts more fully in our reply to be filed with the Court."

The brief claims the recipient of Garland's email, whose name was redacted in the filing, was a "senior administrator, who was directly involved in the sexual assault investigations" and also a member of the school's Sexual Assault Task Force Committee. Perturbed by Garland's note, the recipient documented the exchange in a memo, according to the filing.

"Interim President sent this email to me. No follow up communication transpired to this particular email. Due to the unusual nature, I kept a copy," the administrator wrote in a memo that was heavily redacted and attached as an exhibit in the filing. 

The filing alleges that the email and its timing suggest a “systematic effort by Baylor to destroy or hide evidence.” It also cites an Aug. 28, 2015, text message between Baylor officials that says the school’s former Title IX coordinator is “about to talk about shredding documents.” The text message conversation was quoted in the filing but not attached as an exhibit for The Texas Tribune to independently review.

What documents the text message was referring to is also unclear. But the filing says "Plaintiffs have indication that it relates to a specific event at a meeting of senior Baylor administrators" when a "specific file pertaining to a rape" was being discussed. "Multiple people who were in attendance heard one senior administrator direct the destruction of this file, to which [Baylor's general counsel] responded 'I did not see that,'" the filing says. 

In a statement, Baylor’s outside counsel, Lisa Brown, said, “The plaintiffs’ attorneys have distorted facts and timelines through various court filings in this case, and in this specific instance, leap to wildly unsubstantiated conclusions based on one vague email.”

She said, “Baylor and its counsel have complied with all court orders and rules and have not improperly withheld emails or any other evidence, and we look forward to responding aggressively and in specific detail with the Court.”

Garland took the helm of the private Waco university in June 2016, after former President and Chancellor Ken Starr resigned under pressure in the wake of a scandal over how the school handled allegations of sexual assault among students. Athletics Director Ian McCaw and football coach Art Briles also lost their positions at the school in the scandal’s aftermath.

Garland’s email was sent a few weeks after he was appointed the school’s interim president and the same day he told a television station in Dallas, “Well, if we hadn’t been so transparent, you wouldn’t have known to ask me the question,” according to the filing.

The trouble at Baylor began in 2015, when a football player was convicted of raping a member of the women’s soccer team. Testimony in the player's trial revealed Baylor had investigated the allegations but did not punish him – and his case unleashed a torrent of similar claims from female students whose reports of being sexually assaulted were met with little support from Baylor. (His conviction was later overturned, and the case is currently pending on appeal.)

The university retained an outside law firm to investigate, and they delivered a verbal report of their findings to the school's board of regents.

A short summary of that report was released by Baylor and criticized the university for not having the proper procedures in place to respond to complaints of sexual violence or provide support to victims. The report didn't name names, but it did single out "some football coaches and staff" for improperly diverting misconduct cases from normal university processes and for denying complainants of their right to a fair investigation.

Baylor officials have said the school has made dramatic improvements to how it handles sexual assault complaints. But Baylor remains entangled in lawsuits and is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education, the Texas Rangers and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Disclosure: Baylor University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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