Civil lawsuit claims Arizona State retaliated against ex-official for insisting sexual harassment allegations be investigated

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TEMPE, AZ - DECEMBER 05: Arizona State Sun Devils athletic director Ray Anderson during the UCLA Bruins vs Arizona State Sun Devils football game on Saturday December 5, 2020 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Arizona State Sun Devils athletic director Ray Anderson is among the targets of a federal civil lawsuit. (Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A former athletic official at Arizona State University has filed a federal civil lawsuit against the school, athletic director Ray Anderson and the Arizona Board of Regents tied to the school’s response to allegations of assault and sexual harassment by a prominent ASU athletics booster.

In a federal filing in Arizona District Court, former senior associate athletic director David Cohen alleges his termination in December 2019 was “clear retaliation,” tied to his insistence that ASU investigate the allegations made by three women against the booster, Bart Wear.

The lawsuit comes more than a year after Cohen’s initial notice of claim, which included an ask for $1.5 million to settle. The civil suit, filed last week, does not include a specific dollar amount. Chief Judge G. Murray Snow will hear the case.

Cohen is seeking damages for “past and future wages and benefits, pre and post-judgement interest, compensatory damages, and mental health anguish and emotional distress,” according to the lawsuit.

“You have an abuse of authority here that’s both a failure to properly report and it’s a failure to use your authority to protect the people you are charged to protect,” said Michael Perez, Cohen’s lawyer with Perez Vaughn & Feasby, in a phone interview.

ASU spokeswoman Katie Paquet said in a statement, "In the summer of 2019, the university hired an outside law firm to conduct a full and independent investigation of Mr. Cohen’s claims of retaliation and wrongful termination. The investigation found those claims to be untrue. The claims alleged in the complaint lack a legal and factual basis."

Past allegations resurface that booster ‘sexually harassed’ 3 women

The lawsuit revives the allegations that accompanied the initial complaint, which emerged in February 2020 alleging that ASU officials waited nearly five months to investigate claims of “assault and sexual harassment” from the wives of three athletic department employees. This group included the wives of Cohen and men’s basketball head coach Bobby Hurley.

The lawsuit includes allegations that Anderson “failed to investigate or respond appropriately” upon learning of the allegations and Jay Heiler, then a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, “did not report Mr. Wear’s assault and sexual harassment to the Arizona Board of Regents.”

Heiler, who is no longer a regent, said in a phone interview: “As soon as I became aware of the alleged circumstances, I reported them to the university.”

Anderson did not return a call or text requesting comment. The Arizona Board of Regents did not have an immediate comment.

ASU admitted last year that the situation “could have been resolved in a quicker time frame.” An independent review by an outside law firm concluded the three women were “sexually harassed” but “did not conclude that the donor had grabbed anyone or sexually assaulted anyone.”

Cohen’s lawsuit comes at a time when the Arizona State athletic department is under scrutiny. The school has announced that the NCAA is investigating the Sun Devils’ football program after a dossier of allegations of breaking NCAA rules for visits and extra benefits emerged.

The lawsuit could lead numerous boldface names at Arizona State to give depositions in the case, including Hurley, Anderson, president Michael Crow and football head coach Herm Edwards. As NCAA investigators poke around campus this fall, prominent ASU officials could also be called in for depositions.

“As the case moves forward, explosive evidence will be given from prominent ASU employees and witnesses, some within ASU’s athletics department and others connected to the athletic director,” Perez said.

Suit sets timeline of ASU, AD not addressing booster problem

The lawsuit is perhaps most notable for specifically naming Anderson, the athletic director, who the suit alleges was informed of the harassment allegations in March 2019 and did nothing for nearly five months.

The lawsuit walks through a timeline that indicates Anderson and ASU continued to allow the booster, Bart Wear, privileges in the months after Anderson and multiple other ASU officials had been alerted of the harassment allegations.

  • In May 2019, Anderson went on a golf trip with Wear six weeks after Cohen first brought up the harassment allegations to Anderson. That trip included Anderson, Edwards and senior associate athletic director Jean Boyd traveling to the Bay Area using “Mr. Wear’s private jet service.”

  • In August 2019, the lawsuit alleges Anderson responded tersely when he was questioned by Cohen and Rick Shangraw, the CEO of ASU Enterprise Partners, why nothing had been done about Wear. “He then said that neither (man) was going to tell him how or when to ‘talk to a f****** donor.’”

  • In September 2019, Wear was allowed to go with ASU donors to a game at Michigan State. The lawsuit claims by then there were “ten credible reports of Mr. Wear’s assaults and sexual harassment” and the school was investigating his conduct. “Nonetheless, Mr. Wear continued to enjoy the benefits of being a prominent ASU donor.”

  • In December 2019, after the independent review concluded three women were “sexually harassed” by Wear, he was “given courtside, V.I.P. seats to the ASU v. Louisiana basketball game by ASU,” according to the lawsuit.

This angered Hurley, as his wife, Leslie, was one of the accusers. He emailed Anderson the day after the game saying he felt “lied to,” called Anderson’s actions “disturbing” and accused Anderson of having “disregarded the safety and shown no sensitivity towards the women that have experienced sexual assault.”

Two days after the email, ASU sent Wear a letter canceling his season tickets and asked him to stay away from ASU events. (Wear has denied the allegations brought up by the women and filed his own $5 million notice of claim against the school calling the independent investigation a “hatchet job” and “character assassination." Wear's lawyer Larry Kazan did not return an email and phone call requesting comment on the status of the claim. A lawsuit has yet to be filed, Paquet said.)

In February 2020 after the initial notice of claim, ASU issued a statement that said Cohen “conflated” the issues in the notice of claim. ASU said his termination “had nothing to do with the donor issue” but rather his “refusing to cooperate with a department reorganization that was planned prior to any complaints about the donor.” It called Cohen’s reaction “unprofessional.”

The lawsuit claims Cohen “received glowing reviews for his performance and the highest bonuses in the ASU athletics department.” Cohen oversaw ASU men’s basketball, which made back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1981 under Cohen’s watch.

In February, nearly one year after the claim and prior to this lawsuit being filed, ASU extended Anderson’s contract through February 2026.

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