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January 25, 2013

ND president defends handling of Te'o girlfriend incident

SOUTH BEND — Top administrators at Notre Dame decided within hours of hearing about the Manti Te’o dead girlfriend hoax that it did not involve a crime and within two days had concluded there was no NCAA violation, according to a letter sent by the university president to board of trustee members on Friday.

The Rev. John Jenkins told trustees that despite “the unrelenting scrutiny of hundreds of journalists and countless others — and repeated attempts by some to create a different impression— no facts relating to the hoax have been at odds with what Manti told us” on Dec. 27-28.

The letter was obtained Friday by The Associated Press from a university official who provided it on condition of anonymity because the private school’s internal workings are confidential.

The eight-page document, including a four-page letter from Jenkins and a four-page outline of how Notre Dame handled the hoax, is both a defense and an explanation of the school’s actions.

“We did our best to get to the truth in extraordinary circumstances, be good stewards of the interests of the university and its good name and — as we do in all things — to make the well-being of our students one of our very highest priorities,” Jenkins concluded in his letter.

Some of the timeline Notre Dame outlined is well known, including that its star linebacker disclosed the scam to his coaches the day after Christmas and it remained unknown to the public until Deadspin.com broke the story on Jan. 16, long after the Fighting Irish lost the BCS championship to Alabama on Jan. 7.

Jenkins wrote that Notre Dame officials talked in the hours after hearing from Te’o on Dec. 26 and agreed there was no indication of a crime or student conduct code violation. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick spoke with Te’o the next day, and on Dec. 28 the school concluded there were no indications of an NCAA rules violation, which could have put Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season in jeopardy.

The school then made moves to find out who was behind the hoax, thereby protecting Te’o and itself.

“For the first couple of days after receiving the news from Manti, there was considerable confusion and we simply did not know what there was to disclose,” Jenkins wrote.

On Jan. 2, after several days of internal discussion and a week after Te’o’s disclosure, Notre Dame retained Stroz Friedberg, a New York computer forensics firm to investigate the case and whether any other football players had been targeted. The firm did not return phone or email messages left Friday.

Notre Dame officials believed Te’o’s girlfriend — whether alive or dead — was at least a real person until the next day, when Stroz Friedberg said it could not find any evidence that Kekua or most of her relatives ever existed. And by Jan. 4, two days after hiring Stroz Friedberg, Notre Dame officials concluded Te’o was the victim of the hoax, there was no threat to the school and the private investigation was suspended.

“We concluded that this matter was personal to Manti,” Jenkins wrote, deciding it was up to Te’o to disclose, especially after he signed with Creative Artists Agency on the day after the BCS game.

Notre Dame’s role in the scheme has been heavily scrutinized, with some wondering if the image of Te’o leading the top-ranked Irish through the heartbreaking deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day in September was aimed at burnishing his credentials and that of his school. Te’o was named an All-American and finished second in the Heisman Trophy race.

Te’o has denied in interviews with ESPN and Katie Couric that he was in on the Kekua hoax, though he has admitted he failed to be forthcoming about the fact that the woman he called his girlfriend was only someone he knew through phone calls and electronic messages.

Te’o says that when the hoax was exposed, a 22-year-old acquaintance from California named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo confessed that he was behind the ruse and apologized. The woman whose photos were used as the face of Kekua says Tuiasosopo stole them and that he has apologized to her, too. Tuiasosopo has not made a public statement about the hoax.

The episode put Notre Dame athletics on the defensive, a spot it has occupied before.

George O’Leary resigned in December 2001 after five days as the football coach, admitting he lied on his resume. In 2010, a student-athlete was accused of sexually molesting Saint Mary’s College student Elizabeth Seeberg two weeks before she died of a suspected drug overdose. Later that same year, 20-year-old Declan Sullivan was killed when the aerial lift he was on was knocked over by winds as he filmed football practice. University officials acknowledged their procedures and safeguards were not adequate and paid a $42,000 fine to the state for safety violations.

In the Te’o case, the university’s initial statement after the story broke on Jan. 16 said it had hired investigators to assist him in “discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax.” It also said proper authorities would continue to investigate “this troubling matter.” There is no indication law enforcement agencies were ever notified.

South Bend police and the St. Joseph Prosecutor’s Office both say that they have never been contacted and Robert Ramsey, FBI supervisory special agent for northern Indiana, said there was no investigation because authorities don’t believe a crime was committed. Authorities in California also have said they are not investigating the case.

University spokesman Dennis Brown and another university official who was not identified told the South Bend Tribune the school didn’t go public about the hoax before the BCS title game because they didn’t think it would be in the best interest of either the Notre Dame or Alabama teams.

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