Ohio

Ohio Lawmakers Planned to Fail on Strauss Sex Abuse Bill

“Why would you consider putting us through that?”

BY: JAKE ZUCKERMAN

Despite hearing public, firsthand accounts of sexual abuse from eight of at least 177 victims of Ohio State sports physician Dr. Richard Strauss, state Republican leaders indicated they never planned to pass introduced legislation that would allow his victims to hold the university accountable in court.

Both former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and current House Majority Leader Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., said in recent statements they used the legislation and high-profile hearings to apply pressure on OSU to generate a larger out-of-court settlement for victims — not to guarantee anyone their right to a trial.

In interviews, five victims of Strauss’ abuse and several of their attorneys say they were never told of the purported strategy.

“Why f**k with victims in that way? That’s the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard,” said Mike Schyck, a two-time all-American wrestler for Ohio State, in a recent interview.

Schyck testified before lawmakers in 2019, recounting how Strauss sexually abused him during physical examinations. He said he thought the bill was an honest effort to change the law, not some kind of legal strategy.

“Why would you consider putting us through that?” he said.

Ohio law sets a two-year window within which adult victims of sexual abuse must file any civil lawsuits (child victims get a longer window). Strauss’ conduct occurred between 1979 and 1996, according to an OSU-commissioned, independent investigation.

“We [found] that university personnel had knowledge of Strauss’ sexually abusive treatment of male student-patients as early as 1979, but that complaints and reports about Strauss’ conduct were not elevated beyond the Athletics Department or Student Health until 1996,” the report states.

Victims filed a class action lawsuit that the Associated Press reports would grow to include about 400 plaintiffs. After the filing, an Ohio Republican introduced House Bill 249 in 2019 to allow a special exemption to this statute of limitations for Strauss victims. Last month, long after the bill died, U.S. District Judge Michael Watson dismissed the lawsuit, citing the statute of limitations. However, he lambasted Strauss’ “unspeakable sexual abuse” and how OSU “failed to protect these victims” in his opinion.

He placed much of the blame for his ruling at state lawmakers’ feet.

“If there is a viable path forward for plaintiffs on their claim against Ohio State, it starts with the legislature, rather than the judiciary,” he said.

The House Civil Justice Committee held six hearings on HB 249, hearing out victims, their wives, and parents. However, legislative leaders now admit they never planned to pass the bill.

“The reality is that the bill was introduced to provide the victims with a public forum to tell their stories and hope to persuade the university to settle with victims and bring some degree of closure to a very bad situation,” said Householder, then House speaker, in a statement.

Shawn Dailey, a former OSU wrestler and Strauss victim who testified before lawakers, said he was never told of this plan.  

“That was someone else’s intent, perhaps, but it was never our intent,” he said.

Rocky Ratliff, an attorney representing Strauss victims and a victim and former wrestler himself, said he didn’t know of the strategy. Discussing it in an interview, he called Ohio lawmakers “pathetic.”

During the hearings in 2019 and early 2020, athlete after athlete told lawmakers about how Strauss abused them, and the university failed to act on their complaints. Most all of them cried in front of strangers, lawmakers, TV cameras, and legislative staff.

They described to lawmakers abuses from Strauss like sodomy, forced masturbation, groping and fondling, usually during routine physicals required as a term of participating as a varsity athlete. Some described dealing with PTSD, broken relationships with parents and wives stemming from the abuse, trust issues causing fissures in personal relationships, alcoholism and more.

One former wrestler, Daniel Ritchie, described a series of escalating, unwanted advances from Strauss during annual physicals. When coaches ordered Ritchie to see Strauss for a shoulder injury his junior year, the appointment descended into Strauss stroking Ritchie’s genitals.

It was his first time telling his story publicly — until that point, he was only identified as a John Doe in the OSU lawsuit.

Ritchie explained to lawmakers how the abuse prompted him to quit wrestling. He couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents why. He lost his scholarship and his grades suffered, prompting him to take time from school.

In an interview, he expressed cycles of frustration at telling lawmakers his story on two occasions, retraumatizing himself for nothing.

“You have state government officials, and their sole job is to represent the people of their state,” he said. “When those people come before them and say, ‘We need your help,’ they didn’t help.”

 Excerpt from Richard Strauss’ personnel file at Ohio State University. From Ohio State public records via public domain.

Applying pressure

The bill sponsor, Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, said he, in tandem with the victims, tried in good faith to pass House Bill 249. The legislation is extraordinarily narrow — it allows the Strauss victims, not any other sexual abuse or assault victims, to bring civil lawsuits against OSU even if the statute of limitations has passed.

In an interview, Hillyer said neither he nor the legislature should be blamed for the bill’s failure and Watson’s ruling against the plaintiffs. He insisted he fought in earnest to pass the bill but the votes just weren’t there. The bill never came up for a vote, which is usually a decision of the committee chairman in consultation with House leadership.

“I don’t think there was ever a time that leadership was heavily involved other than encouraging more hearings and asking Ohio State to do the right thing,” Hillyer said.

The chairman at the time, now-former Rep. Steve Hambley, R-New Brunswick, declined to answer questions and referred comment to Householder. He terminated a phone call when asked why he didn’t put the bill up for a vote.

Seitz, a powerful House Republican and Householder’s lieutenant overseeing the judicial committees at the time, didn’t play any public role regarding the bill. However, he recently wrote a letter, which he provided to the Ohio Capital Journal, in response to requests from Strauss victims to resurrect HB 249 in the current legislative session.

While he described Strauss’ conduct as “deplorable,” he said he opposed HB 249, which was “intended to apply pressure to Ohio State to come to the table and make meaningful settlement offers.”

Statutes of limitations, he said, ensure claims are brought when memories are fresh, evidence has not yet been lost, and defendants have a fairer opportunity to defend themselves against allegations that may be “tainted” by faded memories or misremembered events. Plus, he said, if lawmakers grant this extension, where does it end?

“It would have led to a flood of similar demands that the civil statute of limitations for damages be lifted as to lawsuits against churches, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and any number of charitable institutions whose past practices facilitated abuse similar to the abuse that you suffered,” he wrote.

Householder rejected the notion that lawmakers failed on the bill; the votes just weren’t there, he said.

“The intent was to pass the bill if it had support. I guess the obvious questions are, why didn’t [the victims] settle once it was extremely obvious the bill was out of oxygen?” he said.

 State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp. Screenshot courtesy The Ohio Channel.

A heinous precedent

With a statute of limitations as a shield and a legislature signaling its unwillingness to get rid of it, OSU faced a lower liability risk than universities that recently found themselves in similar positions.  

After a former OSU wrestler blew the whistle on Strauss’ conduct in 2018, a university-commissioned investigation by the Perkins Coie law firm established that Strauss abused at least 177 victims over 20 years. Even after the university forced Strauss out in 1997, it allowed him to voluntarily retire and keep his “emeritus” honorific.

Ohio State settled lawsuits with 185 Strauss victims, paying out a total of $46.7 million, about $252,000 per victim. They settled another roughly 45 claims through its “Strauss Individual Settlement Program,” according to a university spokesman. The settlement program contains a term that it’s not “an admission or evidence of any wrongdoing or liability on the part of Ohio State or of the truth of any of the allegations in the lawsuits.”

The terms of the settlement allow victims to speak about their abuse but prohibits them from any “disparagement of Ohio State’s handling of this matter since March 2018, of the terms of this settlement, or of the Program.”

Compare that to Michigan State University’s Larry Nassar. The university paid $500 million to settle lawsuits in 2018 filed by 332 alleged victims of his sexual abuse, which occurred under guise of medical treatments while serving as a women’s gymnastics doctor at the university and Olympic level. That’s about $1.5 million per victim.

The Michigan Legislature passed legislation that year to extend the state’s statutes of limitation, giving sexual assault victims more time to report and sue their accusers, according to Michigan Live.

The University of Southern California paid $852 million earlier this year to 710 women who accused campus gynecologist George Tyndall of sexual assault and said the university failed to properly respond — that’s about $1.2 million per victim.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to extend the statute of limitations allowing Tyndall’s victims to sue the university, according to the Huffington Post.

The OSU saga, however, is unique in that Strauss died by suicide in 2005 — Tyndall and Nassar are still alive.

Robert Allard, an attorney representing several Strauss victims, said his clients were victims of direct contact abuse. He accused Wright and Schulte, an Ohio firm representing other victims who led negotiations with OSU for the settlement, of only representing voyeurism victims. The cheap settlements, he said, took pressure off state lawmakers to pass HB 249.

“The truth is that virtually all of those … who suffered actual sex abuse, i.e. forced masturbation, digital penetration and sodomy, have yet to receive anything remotely close to a fair offer for settlement,” he said. “OSU concocted a scheme designed to screw over true sex abuse victims and found a lackey to pull it off. The whole thing makes me ill. I have never before in my 25 years seen such Machiavellian behavior designed to violate sex abuse victims all over again.”

OSU spokesman Chris Booker called Allard’s allegation “patently false,” noting that individual settlement amounts are determined by an independent party without input from the university. He didn’t offer specifics as to what kinds of claims have been settled. 

Richard Schulte, of the namesake firm, did not respond to repeated inquiries. He now represents sexual abuse survivors at a similar scandal emerging out of the University of Michigan.

“Our ongoing negotiations with Ohio State have resulted in a fair settlement process that acknowledges the harm inflicted on individual survivors and provides a pathway to healing,” he said in an OSU news release announcing some of the settlements. “Once again, Ohio State has stepped forward and done the right thing.” 

Justice for some?

In 2019, House Democrats introduced more comprehensive legislation to address sexual assault in Ohio. It would have removed the criminal statute of limitations to prosecute rape, along with the civil statute of limitations. It also would have closed a loophole in Ohio law that shields men from prosecution if they rape their spouses.

The bill received one, perfunctory hearing in December 2020 with mere days left in the legislative session. House Democrats controlled 38 of 99 seats at the time, meaning they couldn’t pass any bills for the most part without GOP buy-in and acquiescence from the speaker.

Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, sponsored that bill. She said the Democrats likely would have opposed HB 249.

“I 100% believe the victims of Strauss deserve justice, but so does everyone else,” she said. “The fact that this was only being carved out for a specific subset of victims, who by all accounts have suffered greatly due to these horrendous experiences perpetrated by this awful human, I don’t think that justified opening access to justice for them and denying it for everyone else.”

But Rep. Rich Brown, the ranking Democrat on the House Civil Justice Committee, said he figured Democrats likely would have voted for the Strauss bill, although they preferred Boggs’ bill. He said he regularly prodded Hambley to put the Strauss bill up for a vote, only to be told the “powers that be” weren’t having it.

“I feel sorry for the victims,” he said in an interview. “Their testimony in committee was powerful.”

The hearings

Over the course of six hearings, athlete after athlete recounted their abuse; how coaches and administrators ignored their complaints; and how the abuse caused lasting damage.

A swimmer detailed abuse that started with unwanted and inappropriate touching of his genitals. His career ended when Strauss attempted to forcibly sodomize him. He quit swimming, then quit school. He doesn’t trust doctors and won’t see them without his wife present.

A hockey player described how Strauss’ abuse started small and escalated over the years, culminating in the doctor touching and stroking his penis during a required physical. He told an athletic trainer who did nothing. He described himself as a “train wreck” afterward, losing an NHL deal before being diagnosed with PTSD.

“If someone had done something when I reported this 30 years ago, none of these other men here would have been abused,” he said. “Not a single one.”

A wrestler said he was molested 15 times by Strauss in the 1990s, sometimes at the doctor’s personal home. He said he has sought out therapy and contemplated suicide. He said he hasn’t had a physical in more than 20 years now.

“In my mind, I was raped, 15 times. Everybody knew,” he said. “I don’t know why this has taken so long, and all I can ask is just, please, vote and pass and say yes to 249 so this doesn’t happen again.”

A non-athlete student and former major in the U.S. Army said he was abused at Strauss’ clinic and complained to the university as late as 1995. Administrators, he said, told him no one had ever complained before about Strauss.

Brian Noethlich, an attorney representing an anonymous victim in the lawsuit, said his client was drugged and sodomized by Strauss.

“I’m haunted to this day by the image of all the blood,” he said, reading a statement his client wrote. “I was shocked and scared, in tremendous pain and didn’t know what to do.”

 Courtesy of Mike Schyck, seen second from the left.

Lobbying

State lobbying records show Ohio State University registered two lobbyists to work on the bill; the Inter-University Council of Ohio, which represents Ohio schools, had another three.

Some of the plaintiffs’ firms followed suit.

Sharp Law, a firm representing several Strauss victims, hired GOP powerhouse lobbyist Neil Clark to lobby on its behalf. Clark would later be charged alongside Householder in the summer of 2020 for his alleged role in a bribery scheme operated through the House Speaker’s office. Prosecutors say he served as Householder’s proxy, controlling a dark money nonprofit. Both Householder and Clark (who died by suicide earlier this year) pleaded not guilty and denied accusations of bribery.

Clark represented a wide range of clients, and there’s no evidence to link the criminal scandal (mostly involving coal and nuclear bailouts) to the Strauss legislation.

However, Householder made statements through the media at the time calling on OSU to “do the right thing” and settle with the Strauss victims.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit called Advance America, registered to a PO Box in Hyattsville, Maryland, disclosed to the IRS that it operated an LLC known as the “Ohio State Accountability Project,” which purchased TV ads, billboards, and mailers, all pressuring lawmakers to support the Strauss-specific bill. The LLC was incorporated by Cincinnati attorney David Langdon, who operates dozens of dark money operations, often supporting socially conservative political causes. He didn’t respond to phone calls and emails.

The groups do not disclose the sources of their funding.

An email obtained by the Ohio Capital Journal, written by a lobbyist registered alongside Clark to various attorneys representing Strauss victims, with the subject line “The Ohio State Accountability Project,” details a phone call from Kevin DeWine — a former lawmaker and cousin of the governor. The email states DeWine is a neighbor of Rick Schulte, who was the lead negotiator settling with OSU.

The email describes a “robo text” that went out to undisclosed recipients, and other strategies.

“Their PR focus is on making OSU uncomfortable rather than pushing for legislation although they understand that HB 249 provides a forum for more attention on the issue as well as increases in media coverage,” the email states.

Large insurance firms like AIG and Liberty Mutual Group registered to lobby as well; insurers generally oppose expansions of liability of institutions they cover. They didn’t respond to inquiries from the Capital Journal.

The Catholic Church, which has its own history of sexual abuse and subsequent coverups, registered two lobbyists on the bill as well. Jerry Freewalt, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, said they didn’t take a position for or against the bill. 

“The Conference made some inquiries about the legislation and monitored it as we do with many other bills covering a wide-range of issues,” he said.  

“A disservice to survivors”

Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, lobbies state legislatures around the U.S. to eliminate or extend their statutes of limitation for rape charges.

She said she has never heard of a bill used as leverage, as House GOP leaders described.

“It’s quite a disservice to survivors,” she said. “It takes a lot when they come down to the General Assembly to tell their story. That’s a little — I would call it cynical.”

She said there are complicated reasons victims don’t immediately come forward. Extensions of statutes of limitation don’t lower plaintiffs’ burden of proof, she said, they just let them come forward when ready.

“There are a lot of survivors who do not come forward for years, or even decades, especially if it’s due to power,” she said. “We shouldn’t leave the doors of justice open only just a crack.”

Camille Crary testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence. In an interview, however, she acknowledged constitutional problems with only extending the statute of limitation for Strauss victims instead of all victims of abuse.

She said among the problems with lawmakers’ inaction: it sends a signal to institutions that if they learn of a monster within their ranks, they only need to run out the clock a few years to escape liability. There’s no incentive to immediately correct problematic conduct as it arises.

Ratliff, the Strauss victim who sued the university as an attorney, explained the OSU strategy another way: “Deny it, cover it up, hope it never comes out, and if it does, just argue the statute of limitations.”

As for the lawmakers’ pressure play, Crary said it seems to assume that victims want to talk about their abuse publicly, which is not always true.

“I think it’s extremely presumptuous for any lawmakers … especially who didn’t work for victims, to say what is or is not beneficial for them,” she said.

Only one person publicly opposed the bill: Kevin Shimp, representing the Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice, which is comprised of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Manufacturers Association and others.

“The alliance believes creating the potential for endless liability is not the appropriate balance because it only considers one party’s interest,” he said. “Passage of House Bill 249 would undermine the important goals of statutes of limitation by reviving claims that were not filed in criminal or civil court within the time frame required by statute.”

Predictable failure

Part of the plaintiff’s argument was that the statute of limitations on Strauss victims didn’t start at the time of their abuse, given OSU’s role concealing Strauss’ conduct.

But as Watson, the judge, ruled in his dismissal, plaintiffs knew of their injury, the identity of the perpetrator and his employee.

The lawmakers who could have solved the plaintiffs’ statute of limitations problem said they figured the lawsuit would fail without legislative action.

Seitz noted that the victims who held out against OSU’s settlement offer were left with nothing, “as most lawyers could have predicted.”

In May 2019, days after the release of the damning, OSU-commissioned Perkins Coie report, Hillyer hosted a press conference with victims to unveil the legislation. A reporter asked if the Strauss lawsuit would fail without a change to the law.

“Under the current statute of limitations, they would have expired, and unfortunately, these victims would not have an opportunity to have their day in court,” Hillyer said.

This article was republished with permission from Ohio Capital Journal. For more in Ohio political news, visit www.ohiocapitaljournal.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



Ohio Lawmakers Planned to Fail on Strauss Sex Abuse Bill Source link Ohio Lawmakers Planned to Fail on Strauss Sex Abuse Bill

Related Articles

Back to top button