Report: Investigators hired by Ohio State did not attempt to recover deleted texts from Urban Meyer, Gene Smith

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, right, and athletic director Gene Smith, left, were both suspended following the investigation into their handling of Zach Smith. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon, File)
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, right, and athletic director Gene Smith, left, were both suspended following the investigation into their handling of Zach Smith. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon, File)

In the weeks since the conclusion of the Ohio State-commissioned investigation into Urban Meyer’s handling of former assistant Zach Smith, one specific part of the investigative findings has come under increased scrutiny.

On Meyer’s phone, investigators came across texts Meyer exchanged with Brian Voltolini, OSU’s Director of Football Operations, after an Aug. 1 news report that said Meyer was aware of a 2015 domestic abuse allegation against Smith involving his ex-wife Courtney Smith. In those texts, per the investigation, the two discussed “whether the media could get access” to Meyer’s phone and “how to adjust the settings on Meyer’s phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted.”

When investigators later obtained Meyer’s phone, it was “set to retain text messages only for that (one-year) period,” as the two discussed. However, investigators could not determine when that setting was applied to Meyer’s phone.

“It is concerning that (Meyer’s) first reaction to a negative media piece exposing his knowledge of the 2015-16 law enforcement investigation was to worry about the media getting access to information and discussing how to delete messages older than a year,” the report said.

Despite those findings, the investigators decided not to have Meyer’s phone sent to a forensics lab to find out if he actually did delete those old text messages, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Why didn’t the investigation dive deeper into Meyer’s phone?

According to the WSJ, the investigative team “concluded they had seen enough evidence to satisfy the scope of their mandate from Ohio State” without a more extensive probe into Meyer’s phone.

In the 23-page investigative report released Aug. 22 (which resulted in Meyer’s three-game suspension), it listed the “primary questions to be answered by the investigative investigation” as:

  • In the hiring, retaining, supervising and firing of Zach Smith, did Urban Meyer violate any Ohio State University policies or rules, Title IX, NCAA rules, Big Ten Rules, Ohio State Ethics laws, any other state or federal laws, or his contractual obligations to OSU in connection with Zach Smith’s alleged commission of domestic violence against his former wife, including any obligations to report the alleged domestic violence?

  • When Urban Meyer spoke at Big Ten Media Days on July 24, 2018 about the firing of Zach Smith on July 23, 2018, did he misrepresent his knowledge of a law enforcement investigation of Zach Smith in 2015 for possible domestic violence and, if so, did he do so intentionally?

  • What was the role of athletic director Gene Smith in the above events and did he engage in conduct violative of any laws, rules, policies, or his contractual obligations to OSU in connection with those events?

The investigation, which was completed in 14 days, was led by Mary Jo White, the former chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission who is now a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, a law firm based in New York City.

A spokesperson from the firm told the WSJ that investigators did reach out to a forensics lab about a closer look at Meyer’s phone, but the lab “estimated a multi-day project and an uncertain outcome,” so the firm decided not to use the lab’s services.

WSJ asked a digital forensics lab how long such a probe would take:

Black Swan, a Memphis-based digital forensics lab run by a former Alabama homeland security director, says it can extract that kind of information from mobile phones in less than 24 hours for around $2,000. “You can definitely tell when the settings were changed,” said Scott Vowell, a Black Swan forensic engineer.

Urban Meyer’s explanation

In an interview with ESPN and in a news conference Tuesday, Meyer said repeatedly that he did not delete text messages off of his cell phone. He told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi he had “no concern whatsoever” about the media potentially accessing his phone.

“I made it very clear that I did not delete messages off my phone. I also made it clear that I don’t know how to change the settings on my phone. The report, they couldn’t tell if there was,” Meyer told ESPN.

In Tuesday’s media conference, Meyer, who will return to the sideline for Saturday’s game, said an “IT person” changed the settings on his phone to “increase the storage capacity” and also to have text messages delete after one year.

Gene Smith gave investigators a phone with no texts

Another part of the Wall Street Journal report focused on Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director since 2005. The report said that when he turned his phone over to investigators, it contained no text messages. Smith explained, per the WSJ, that “he routinely deletes all texts after sending or receiving them.”

Like with Meyer, the phone of Smith, who served a 17-day suspension, was not probed for deleted messages. The 23-page report does not mention Smith deleting any text messages. The summary of findings said Meyer and Smith “failed to adhere to the precise requirements of their contracts when they concluded that they needed to await a law enforcement determination to file charges before they reported the otherwise disputed claims of spousal abuse against Zach Smith.”

Violation of Ohio state law?

Gene Smith’s admission of routinely deleting texts could violate Ohio state law, as it would if Meyer did the same.

From the WSJ:

Jack Greiner, a Cincinnati-based lawyer who specializes in media law, says Ohio State’s records-retention policy requires saving correspondence that isn’t transitory–not including, for instance, a text message saying you’ll be home late–for at least one year.

“A blanket practice of deleting texts violates the records-retention policy on its face, which therefore constitutes a violation of the [state] statute,” Mr. Greiner said.

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