VMI Update: The WaPo Makes Another Sleazy Insinuation

by James A. Bacon

In the early stages of the Barnes & Thornburg investigation into racism at the Virginia Military Institute, there was some contention over how the inquiry should be handled. Initially, VMI administrators asked for its lawyers to observe investigators’ interviews of faculty, staff and students. Barnes & Thornburg pushed back, saying the lawyers’ presence would be intimidating. The disagreement erupted into public view when the investigative team published its interim findings earlier this month.

VMI has since backed off, and in its latest article on the racism controversy the Washington Post quotes anonymous faculty sources as saying that they have spoken to Barnes & Thornburg and felt no pressure from school officials.

So, the question arises: Why did VMI officials back off? Did they do so voluntarily, or did they feel coerced? Here’s what the Washington Post had to say:

After one state lawmaker suggested that VMI could lose some of its $19.3 million of state funding if it did not cooperate, the college’s interim superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Winsreleased a statement encouraging students and teachers to come forward. He shared a designated email and phone number for the firm’s investigators. Pledging the college’s commitment to confidentiality, he promised that all members of the VMI community “will be treated equitably and without fear of retaliation at every stage of this vital process.”

The lawmaker that writer Ian Shapira was referring to in that paragraph was state Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, who, according to a previous article he had written, had said that if VMI didn’t “stop its delaying tactics and its efforts to thwart the investigation,” it risked losing some of its annual $19.3 million in state support — or be compelled to foot the $1 million bill for the investigation.

By juxtaposing the reference to Howell’s threat and Wins’ statement encouraging students to come forward, Shapira implies that there was a connection between the two events — that Wins buckled because of fears of jeopardizing the state’s aid to VMI. This is classic Shapira — insinuating causation without saying so explicitly. He similarly defamed Commandant William Wanovich by implying but not stating outright a link between his impending retirement to the racism investigation. Likewise, he implied a link between a racial incident involving a Hispanic/African-American basketball player during VMI “hell week” and the student’s expulsion the following semester for an Honor Code offense.

Careful readers are left scratching their heads. Did Wins feel coerced into  cooperating, or had he intended to cooperate all along? Was the dispute with Barnes & Thornburg an effort by VMI to “thwart” the investigation, in Howell’s words, or was it merely procedural as the administration tried to establish the ground rules?

In his statement to the “VMI Family,” Wins said he was “perplexed” by the tone of Barnes & Thornburg’s interim report. “We have been focused on building a strong and cooperative relationship with them during the investigation.” It is normal in commencing such investigations, he said, to review processes and procedures. He cited three sets of issues.

  • How to comply with Family Education Rights and Privacy Act laws, which protect students’ right to privacy.
  • The rights of cadets, faculty, and staff to have legal counsel present when being questioned by Barnes & Thornburg’s team of former prosecutors.
  • Resolution of Barnes & Thornburg’s request that VMI suspend the Honor Code for cadets interviewed during the investigation.

These are not trivial issues, and they had to be resolved.

Unmentioned by the Washington Post, Barnes & Thornburg was under the gun to produce fast results. When issuing its Request for Proposal in early November, the Northam administration set a super-aggressive time-line. The RFP process was truncated from 30 days to 10 days. The winning bidder was required to issue preliminary findings and recommendations to the Governor and General Assembly leadership by Dec. 31 and submit an interim report by Feb. 5. Due to a variety of reasons, Barnes & Thornburg was not awarded the contract until Jan. 7, giving the firm less than a month to research its interim report.

In that report, Barnes & Thornburg reached no conclusions and made no recommendations. The Northam administration lost its opportunity to submit legislation to the General Assembly this year. The investigative team conceded that VMI leaders had made themselves available to make presentations and answer questions, and that the administration had handed over a wide array of documents. But, as a face-saving matter, the firm had to explain why its investigators had failed to meet the administration’s deadline. That was most readily accomplished by dwelling on the procedural issues VMI had raised.

As Wins contended in his statement to the VMI community, those procedural questions were typical for any investigation of this type.

The problem wasn’t that VMI raised issues that needed resolution, it was that Barnes & Thornburg was operating under an unrealistic deadline imposed by the Northam administration for political reasons. But the law firm couldn’t very well say that in its report.

VMI’s leadership pledged its full cooperation from the beginning. The procedural issues it raised were legitimate. Those issues have been resolved — VMI’s lawyers will not attend interviews unless invited by the person being questioned, but it will not bend on its insistence that all students abide by the Honor Code — and the investigation is proceeding with the university’s full cooperation.

Shapira presented zero evidence that VMI leaders bowed to Howell’s threat, and, in absence of evidence to the contrary, VMI is entitled to the presumption that it has been cooperating fully with the investigation as it had promised all along. Shapira’s insinuation is just a cheap shot that no credible news publication would ever let into print.