The past fiscal year brought a flurry of high-profile legal investigations and reviews for Ohio State University, with the price tag on its biggest investigation and related litigation still climbing.

As of the beginning of this month, the cost of the independent investigation by the Perkins Coie law firm and litigation relating to sexual abuse allegations against deceased Ohio State physician Richard Strauss is approximately $7.8 million, university spokesman Ben Johnson said.

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The legal work surrounding the Strauss matter continues to grow, but it is not the only issue on which the university has racked up legal expenses within the past year.

Last month, The Dispatch learned that Ohio State spent more than $1.1 million on law firms and auditing specialists to review sexual assault cases from its now-shuttered Sexual Civility and Empowerment unit and to create a redesigned Title IX system.

And last year, Ohio State paid $1 million to Debevoise & Plimpton, the New York law firm it hired to help investigate how then-head football coach Urban Meyer handled domestic violence allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith. The university called for the investigation to be completed in 14 days. The probe resulted in Meyer’s three-game suspension at the start of the 2018 season, his last with the Buckeyes before retiring.

“There’s a bit of peeling the onion that’s almost always occurring when a college makes a decision to undertake an investigation of any sort,” said Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education. “Typically, the view is, ‘Hey, it’s the right thing to do. We need to get to the bottom of what happened.’”

Those decisions define the scope of the investigations from the beginning, and then universities must see where they lead, said McDonough, who served as general counsel for Princeton University until 2014.

“It’s the ‘let’s see where it goes’ part that can lead to what then becomes a relatively and absolute high cost,” he said.

Paying for high-cost investigations like Ohio State has in the past year isn't unusual, McDonough said. There have always been campuses that have undertaken high-profile, intensive investigations for issues such as faculty or employee misconduct or misappropriation of funds.

Yet the price tags have increased because more technical forensic experience might be necessary for such investigations, McDonough said. And it often takes more time to unbundle it all, he said.

Think emails, text messages and more electronic communications, McDonough said.

The University of North Carolina racked up more than $21 million in legal fees relating to its long-running academic scandal to keep athletes playing. Michigan State's bills had reached about $20 million earlier this year for legal fees relating to the sexual assault scandal surrounding Larry Nassar, who worked for both the university and USA Gymnastics. 

Last year, the Ohio Controlling Board approved $7.77 million for Ohio State’s spending on outside legal counsel in fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30, but the university would not say how much it actually spent. Johnson said those figures were not yet available, but spending on outside counsel has been under budget every year since 2006.

“Spending on outside counsel is relatively consistent from year to year and has not been increasing,” Johnson said in an emailed statement.

Ohio State’s spending on outside legal counsel has averaged about $4.4 million from fiscal 2008 to 2018. On average, Ohio State spent about 48% of its budget for outside legal counsel for those 10 years.

In fiscal year 2018, the last year for which Ohio State said figures are available, spending on outside legal counsel accounted for 0.07% of university expenses, Johnson said.

Last month, the Controlling Board approved nearly $8.1 million for Ohio State to spend on outside legal counsel for the current fiscal year, as part of the attorney general’s overall $24.2 million request for outside counsel for various state clients. Other state entities included Kent State University, with outside counsel spending of $1.35 million for the fiscal year; the University of Akron, $1.18 million; the Department of Education, $800,000; and the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, $685,000.

Ohio State’s $8.1 million made up the largest chunk of the attorney general’s request for the current fiscal year. The university’s biggest contracts, each totaling just more than $1 million, are with local firms Carpenter, Lipps & Leland and Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease."Ohio State is the largest public university in the state, employs more people than any other university and also has a top-tier medical center, a top-tier athletics program and a top-tier law school," said Dave O'Neil, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, in an emailed statement. "It also is involved in the most high profile matters (Dr. Strauss investigation, Meyer, etc.)."

Any state entity that enters into a contract over $50,000 for special counsel must get the approval of the Controlling Board. While those entities must get Controlling Board approval to waive the competitive bidding process to hire specialized law firms, Ohio State still pays for outside counsel from its own budget, O'Neil said.

In addition to outside counsel, Ohio State employs 61 staff members — the majority of which are attorneys — within its Office of Legal Affairs. Combined salaries of employees in that office total nearly $6.8 million annually, excluding a handful of hourly employees, according to Ohio State’s salary database.

Legal spending — and the public opinion that may come with it — can be complicated.

“The numbers can be so high that it suggests that the institution just has that much money just laying around to spend,” McDonough said.

Often times, though, universities have insurance policies that help cover the costs, he said.

Asked about Ohio State’s legal spending, Johnson pointed to its multibillion-dollar budget, large student body, medical center and athletic program, among other university components that often come with legal needs.

“Ohio State is one of the largest and most complex public entities in Ohio,” Johnson said in an emailed statement.

“I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that American higher education institutions, particularly complex ones like Ohio State, are the most regulated entities in the country, both on the federal level and on the state and local level,” McDonough said.

 

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola