Investigator in Meyer probe is no novice

Jennifer Smola
Mary Jo White

She’s prosecuted terrorists and mob bosses.

She ran the powerful U.S. agency overseeing financial markets.

She’s a frequent resource for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

But for central Ohioans, power attorney Mary Jo White’s most important role might be her next one: leading the investigation into Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer.

Ohio State, in an announcement late Sunday, said White will lead the investigative team probing allegations that Meyer knew about domestic violence by former assistant coach Zach Smith in 2015.

As a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, White led the prosecutions against the terrorists behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. She also handled a number of securities, financial-fraud and white-collar-crime cases, including the prosecution of mob boss John Gotti.

“That is widely considered to be the No. 1 federal prosecutors office in the country,” said Geoffrey Rapp, a professor of law at the University of Toledo with an expertise in sports law. “This is going to be someone who is one of the top, if not the top, former federal prosecutors that’s available.”

>> Read more: Complete coverage of the Urban Meyer investigation

White led the Securities and Exchange Commission from April 2013 to 2017. After leaving the agency at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration, White returned to the international law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, where she is senior chair of the firm, litigation partner and leader of its Strategic Crisis Response and Solutions Group.

The New York-based firm is among the elite, said Rapp, calling it “a go-to firm for American corporations when they are dealing with very complex internal investigations.”

White also has been involved in a number of recent sports investigations. She was tapped earlier this year to lead the NFL’s investigation into workplace-misconduct allegations involving former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who was accused of sexual harassment and of making racist comments. White’s findings substantiated the claims made against Richardson and confirmed that the Panthers did not report them to the NFL until they became public.

White’s findings resulted in a $2.75 million fine for Richardson, but some have criticized the investigation.

“(White’s) involvement with the Jerry Richardson review and investigation that the NFL did, I think a lot of people criticized the overall findings of that investigation,” said Ricky Volante, a lawyer with Buckley King LPA in Cleveland and adjunct professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, specializing in sports law. “Many felt the investigation lacked any real teeth to it, in particular the punishment and the fine that was given to Richardson.”

The NFL also named White as one of four external advisers in the investigation into former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, accused of multiple instances of physical violence against his former girlfriend. While no criminal charges were filed against him, the NFL investigation led to a six-game suspension for Elliott. He and his legal team fought the ban, but the Dallas Cowboys player ultimately served the suspension last season.

In 2012, White also oversaw the NFL’s investigation into allegations that players on the New Orleans Saints were given bonuses or “bounty” payments for plays that injured opposing players. That investigation resulted in numerous suspensions of coaches and players.

With White, Ohio State is bringing in an investigator with credibility, but one who also leaves flexibility, legal experts said.

“If you want to make sure that people respect your investigation, you’ve got to bring in unimpeachable outsiders, like Mary Jo White,” Rapp said.

“Ohio State is certainly leaving itself enough wiggle room to possibly — whether with a fine or something of that nature — keep Meyer in place,” Volante said.

Whatever the outcome, White has her work cut out for her. Ohio State said in its Sunday announcement that the investigation is expected to conclude within 14 days.

“Fourteen days seems optimistic, but I’d understand that there’s some pressure to get to an answer quickly,” Rapp said, citing the fast-approaching college football season.

“It’s a double-edged sword. Setting a timeline that is that expedient does make the investigation susceptible to not getting the whole story, and maybe even painting the picture that this is more a formality than a real investigation,” Volante said. “What’s going on here is more important than football, however. College football is a business, and they need to make sure that business is protected.”