A top-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has emerged as a potentially key figure in Rolling Stone’s false article, “A Rape on Campus.”
Catherine Lhamon, who heads the Department’s civil rights wing, was identified in a letter sent last month by University of Virginia Dean of Students Allen Groves to Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, the two Columbia Journalism School deans who conducted a review of the Nov. 19 article, written by disgraced reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
Groves’ letter was included as a footnote to the Columbia deans’ report, which was released on Sunday and cataloged the failures and lies that led to the article’s publication.
In the letter, Groves wrote that he has suffered “personal and professional” damage as a result of Erdely’s reporting and comments Lhamon made about him which were included in the article.
As the Rolling Stone article fell apart, Lhamon’s involvement has gone virtually unmentioned. But a deeper look reveals her ties to Emily Renda, a University of Virginia employee and activist who put Erdely in touch with Jackie, the student whose claim that she was brutally gang-raped by seven members of a fraternity on Sept. 28, 2012, served as the linchpin for the 9,000-word Rolling Stone article.
President Obama nominated Lhamon to become the Education Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in July 2013. The Senate approved her unanimously the following month.
She has served as the Education Department’s designee to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault which Obama created on Jan. 22, 2014. Renda served on the same task force.
Besides that link, both spoke at a February 2014 University of Virginia event entitled “Sexual Misconduct Among College Students.”
Lhamon has been invited to the White House nearly 60 times, according to visitor’s logs. Renda has been invited six times. Both were invited to the same White House meeting on three occasions. One, held on Feb. 21, 2014, was conducted by Lynn Rosenthal, then the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. Twenty-one people, mostly activists, were invited to that meeting. Lhamon and Renda were invited to two other larger gatherings — one on April 29 and the other on Sept. 19.
It is unclear if both attended the three meetings. Renda did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Renda and Lhamon also testified at a June 26, 2014, Senate hearing on campus sexual assault. It was at that hearing that Renda cited Jackie’s story that she was brutally gang-raped by five fraternity members — a statement that was inconsistent with Jackie’s claim to Erdely that she was raped by seven men. According to the Columbia report, Renda first told Erdely about Jackie’s allegation on July 8, nearly two weeks after her Senate testimony.
During her testimony, Lhamon claimed that “The best available research suggests that 20% of college women, and roughly 6% of college men, are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault.” That “one-in-five” claim about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus has been heavily disputed.
Lhamon’s and Renda’s coverage of two different aspects to campus sexual assault highlights exactly what Erdely tried — but failed — to accomplish with her article. The reporter used Jackie’s story about a gang-rape to introduce readers to what she asserted was a systemic failure on the part of universities, police, and society to prevent and investigate sexual assault.
In their review, Coll and Coronel determined that Erdely cherry-picked the most compelling narrative she could find to support her thesis that universities fail to take sexual assault victims seriously. She had interviewed students at other schools but chose to report Jackie’s gruesome tale.
She also reported that university officials and local police failed to properly investigate claims made by Jackie and other victims. But it turns out that school administrators and police investigators actually went to great lengths to investigate Jackie’s alleged rape. But she was unwilling to name her attackers or file a police report. Coll and Coronel also discovered that some of the other rape allegations Erdely reported in her article came from a single source: Jackie.
In his letter, Groves wrote that he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking correspondence between Lhamon and Erdely. Likewise, The Daily Caller filed a FOIA request but expanded the inquiry to include emails Lhamon and her assistant sent to Renda.
In his letter to Coll and Coronel, Groves wrote that he was “one of the professionals vilified by name” in Erdely’s article.
He claimed that Erdely completely mischaracterized remarks he made at a Sept. 2014 meeting with university trustees about sexual assault and that Lhamon disparaged him with comments she made to Erdely.
He took issue with how Erdely characterized his comments and demeanor during the meeting.
Erdely’s passage on Groves dripped with contempt:
Dean of students Allen Groves, in a blue suit and orange necktie of his own, swooped in with a smooth answer. He affirmed that while like many of its peers UVA was under investigation, it was merely a “standard compliance review.” He mentioned that a student’s complaint from the 2010-11 academic year had been folded into that “routine compliance review.” Having downplayed the significance of a Title IX compliance review – which is neither routine nor standard – he then elaborated upon the lengths to which UVA has cooperated with the Office of Civil Rights’ investigation, his tone and manner so reassuring that the room relaxed.
Groves pointed to the next passage in Erdely’s piece which includes commentary from Lhamon about his remarks. She told Erdely that his comments were a “deliberate and irresponsible” mischaracterization of her agency’s investigation into sexual assault at UVA.
“Nothing annoys me more than a school not taking seriously their review from the federal government about their civil rights obligations,” she told Erdely.
In his letter, Groves wrote that he took all sexual assault allegations and investigations seriously and urged Coll and Coronel to watch a YouTube video of the meeting in question. He disputed Erdely’s assertion that he “swooped in” to deflect a question.
“I was asked a question and responded to it directly,” Groves wrote.
Contrary to what Erdely wrote, Groves did tell the trustees that UVA was being investigated as part of both a general compliance review and a specific complaint. He said that both inquiries had been folded into the Office of Civil Rights’ single investigation. He then turned to UVA’s Associate Vice President Susan Davis to ask if he had covered everything pertinent to the issue, and she agreed that it was a “very fair summary.”
“I can see no basis for the approach that Ms. Erdely took other than bias and malice,” Groves wrote in his letter to Columbia’s deans. “The personal and professional damage inflicted as a result was quite real.”
Despite the context provided by Groves, the Department of Education is not backing off of Lhamon’s comments to Erdely.
“We stand by the statement Catherine made during her interview with Rolling Stone,” Dorie Turner Nolt, the agency’s press secretary, told TheDC.
Groves is not the only UVA official to call foul on Erdely’s reporting. Dean Nicole Eramo, the first official to whom Jackie claimed she was raped, told the Columbia deans that Erdely completely misquoted her. Erdely reported that Eramo called UVA “the rape school” and said that parents would never “want to send their daughter” there. Eramo adamantly denied ever uttering those words.