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LSU's 175-foot tall Memorial Tower, or Campanile, which was erected in 1923.

The Baton Rouge law firm that has represented LSU since the 1930s advised a small group of university leaders not to tell most of the Board of Supervisors about former football coach Les Miles’ alleged improper behavior with female students — advice that several current board members say is at the root of the university’s culture of covering up allegations of sexual harassment.

As legislators are looking for LSU leaders to fire over the scandal — not to mention threatened lawsuits; two federal probes; and the likelihood of sexual misconduct allegations spreading well beyond the athletic department — three LSU board members said the first fired should be the Baton Rouge law firm that has given advice to the top LSU leaders for generations: Taylor Porter LLP.

“Taylor Porter should be let go and never hired again,” said Lee Mallett, the longest serving of the 16 members on the Board of Supervisors and the first to break the panel’s omertà to speak publicly.

“I am tired of being blamed for a situation over which I had no control and wasn’t even told about,” said Mallett, a Lake Charles businessman who was first named to the board by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012 and to a second term by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

LSU reports paying Taylor Porter $3.3 million since 2016.

“It appears that one or more past or current Board members have a fundamental misunderstanding of our advice to LSU at the time,” responded Taylor Porter partner David Shelby, a member of the firm’s executive committee and its general counsel. “We did not give advice to the university that it ‘keep the matter from other members of the LSU Board.’ … We were not asked to brief the board beyond those to whom we reported directly.”

Shelby added that the firm needed to protect the privacy of the complainants and noted that one of the women, as well as Miles, had lawyers who were threatening to sue.

Mallett and two other board members speaking on condition of anonymity said the legal advice kept 13 of the 16 members on the board in 2013 from knowing that Miles had been accused by two female students of “unwanted touching” and propositions to go with him to a hotel or his condo. Miles denies the allegations. The full board, which is supposed to have final say on policy at LSU, didn’t know about and therefore couldn’t oversee harassment claims as they arose.

“I was not told, and I talked to several other board members at the time and they told me they hadn’t been told. This has put us all in the wrong end of the pool,” Mallett said.

Unlike other oversight panels for public agencies, the Board of Supervisors has long clamped down on its members publicly speaking their minds in order to present a united front. Though nothing is written in the university bylaws, by practice, the board’s chair has been the only member to speak publicly. Board chair Robert Dampf, a Baton Rouge attorney, did not respond to requests for comment on this issue.

Keeping the Miles allegations quiet created a precedent for the next eight years that led LSU administrators to tamp down sexual misconduct allegations despite federal law clearly requiring those instances be reported and investigated, the three board members argue, pointing to support for their position found in an intensive investigative report.

It all began with a May 15, 2013, recap of a meeting about the Miles allegations with only three of the 16 LSU board members — Hank Danos, Bobby Yarborough and Stanley Jacobs, none of whom is still serving — then-athletic director Joe Alleva, senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar and three Taylor Porter partners: managing partner Robert Barton, Vicki Crochet and Shelby McKenzie, who was identified as “LSU Lead Legal Counsel,” according to the Taylor Porter memo written the same day about the conversation.

The law firm had reviewed allegations from two female students who had worked in the athletic department, one of whom babysat for Miles’ children. Written by Crochet for the law firm’s files, the memo says those in the meeting accepted the findings of the law firm and recognized that further investigation “or remedial action” threatened to expose the identities of the students making complaints against Miles.

“Those present agreed that this was appropriate administrative action that could and should be taken without further review by the full Board,” Crochet wrote.

Taylor Porter recommended maintaining the documents in a way to keep from having to present them under the state’s public record law. “In order to attempt to minimize the possibility of this, we suggest that the written directive to XXX ... be sent by our law firm to the law firm representing XXX. Each law firm would maintain copies of the document in its file,” recommended the eight-page report, which included the X’s.

Alleva recommended Miles be fired for cause in 2013, citing “insubordination, inappropriate behavior, putting the university, athletic dept. and football program at great risk.” Instead, Miles was ordered by the university to sign documents attached to the memo and agree to stop hiring female students for babysitting in his home and to stop being alone with them, among other conditions.

The incident was revealed publicly in March by Husch Blackwell, a Missouri-based law firm hired by interim LSU President Tom Galligan in November to investigate how LSU had responded to sexual misconduct allegations. Husch Blackwell indicated the culture that allowed such mishandling to thrive over the past eight years would have been much different had LSU officials followed federal law and disciplined Miles appropriately in 2013.

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“We are not in a position to offer an opinion on whether the allegations against him are true or not. Instead, the issue is whether the University responded to this report against a powerful member of the University and Athletics Department in a manner consistent with then-existing legal guidance, well recognized best practices, and institutional policy. The answer is ‘no,’ ” Husch Blackwell wrote.

Taylor Porter’s Crochet, who wrote the 2013 memo, was asked to appear Thursday before the state Senate Select Committee on Women and Children, which has been holding hearings into the allegations at the university.

She declined to appear but wrote to Sen. Regina Barrow, who chairs the panel: “Both Les Miles and the complainant were represented by independent counsel, both threatened litigation against the University, and both demanded absolute privacy. LSU took the complaint seriously and understood the risk that disclosure of the complainant’s identity (in contravention of her demand for confidentiality) would discourage the reporting of future misconduct by others.

“Indeed, the complainant’s privacy was a matter of extremely high priority both to LSU and to our law firm and remains a priority today. Furthermore, though we found that he acted inappropriately, Les Miles adamantly denied most of the allegations.”

Crochet wrote that Taylor Porter continues to stand behind its analysis done for LSU.

Her contention that protecting the identity of the woman making the complaint was a major factor was borne out in a warning letter received by LSU and the law firm on Wednesday.

Charles Peckham, the Houston lawyer representing one of the students, wrote that the woman still wants her identity protected and warned against disclosing identifying information, such as her birth date and the years she attended LSU. “Student 2 has asked us to indicate to all parties in no uncertain terms that the release of details of her outcry, even without her identifying information, is a revictimization and would be an invasion of her privacy,” Peckham wrote.

Taylor Porter partner McKenzie was listed as “LSU Lead Legal Counsel” in the Miles affair and had been the university’s chief lawyer from the 1970s until the 1990s, when LSU hired a general counsel to work solely inside the system office for the LSU president.

McKenzie confidentially emailed board members on March 3, 2013, asking that they avoid any comments in the media.

“Rumors are circulating concerning a matter allegedly involving personnel in the LSU Athletic Department,” he wrote. “We want to assure you that the matter is being investigated by LSU legal counsel and administrators under the procedures and with the confidentiality required by LSU policies.

“Such investigations are legally required to be conducted with the utmost confidentiality to protect all persons who may be interviewed. If any further action is required after thorough investigation, such action will be taken in accord with LSU policies.”

At the time of his retirement, McKenzie recalled for the Louisiana Bar Association in November 2016 that Taylor Porter’s relationship with LSU began during the Louisiana Hayride scandals following the assassination of Huey Long in 1935.

In short order, dozens of Long acolytes found themselves in trouble, including LSU President James Monroe Smith, a dean from what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette tapped by Long to run the flagship because of his malleability. Smith was accused of embezzling about $500,000 — valued at about $10 million today — and took off for Canada.

Paul Hebert, the dean of the law school that now bears his name, became interim president and sent his chief assistant, Troy Middleton, to hire Taylor Porter to represent LSU as federal prosecutors untangled the fraudulent transactions. The relationship has continued since.

Shelby, the Taylor Porter general counsel, added Wednesday: “We did what we were retained to do, i.e. investigate and report to the university our findings and provide recommendations based on the law. The ultimate decision as to the disposition of the allegations was left to LSU. We acted appropriately and within our professional obligations to our client, LSU, and we kept our commitment to the parties involved in the investigation that their privacy interests would be honored, especially as to the complainants.”


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.