May 30, 2024

John Champagne submitted his report just before noon on Oct. 28, 2021. The many hours of compliance training the English professor had taken during his nearly 30 years at Penn State Behrend had sunk in.

He understood that reporting misconduct was his duty.

Within seconds of pressing send, Champagne was notified that Penn State’s Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response had received his report, which alleged that an upcoming “Pray the Gay Away” event on University Park’s campus created a “hostile work environment.” At least 11 university administrators were also sent copies of the claim, Champagne was told.

The professor’s complaint had entered Penn State’s internal accountability system — a series of compliance and risk management offices, many of which were formed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal roughly a decade earlier.

This investigation by Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times into Penn State’s efforts to prevent misconduct and harassment found deep-rooted flaws in the system largely created following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

The two newsrooms spent a year speaking with current and former Penn State employees, state lawmakers, and outside experts. The reporters reviewed court filings, university-sponsored campus surveys, internal university communications, and confidential hotline reports alleging misconduct.

The investigation found communication gaps and questionable practices within Penn State’s Office of Ethics and Compliance and related offices tasked with ensuring the university follows federal, state, and university policies.

Read more here.

Penn State was applauded as a national leader for these reforms and pledged to “never waver” from its commitments to safeguarding children, students, and employees.
“The news about the positive change is abundant here at the university,” a senior official told the university’s Board of Trustees in 2015 about the changes. “It’s something that we all can, and should, take considerable pride in. And we are not resting on any laurels.”

Not long after those comments, though, the system began to unravel. A yearlong investigation by Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times found the internal accountability apparatus Penn State constructed has repeatedly failed those it was intended to protect.

A decade after the national scandal, Penn State lacks a unified way to track all cases of reported misconduct. Its various compliance offices do not all follow a standardized investigative protocol and do not disclose their findings to the public or to the wider university community. This decentralized structure results in multiple offices applying policies to more than 123,000 students and employees on two dozen campuses across the state with a limited awareness of existing problems — a setup so gnarled it snared Penn State’s signature ethics hub.

Penn State built an office to uphold its ethical standards and structured positions to “ensure accountability for senior administrators.” Yet for nearly two years, that unit struggled to handle behavior it was designed to prevent — the chief ethics officer was repeatedly accused of misconduct and retaliation; people complained Penn State’s hotline reporting process was unfair and subjective; a university leader was accused of interfering with investigations of top administrators; and the unit allegedly stopped providing oversight of other investigative offices.

Federal and state inquiries have found failures in the university’s systems for years despite Penn State’s Board of Trustees creating committees to oversee risk and compliance. Problems identified during the Sandusky scandal remain, a U.S. Department of Education report from 2020 concluded, noting that there are “serious inadequacies” in how Penn State handles claims of sexual harassment.

Four years after Penn State created a special position to protect children in university youth programs, a state report found the university was not properly vetting all individuals who had contact with children, and that potentially dozens of youth camps were operating with at least one individual lacking proper background checks.

In the wake of the national scandal, the university said it would emphasize and enforce its anti-retaliation policy to encourage whistleblowing. But a 2017 survey found that less than half of Penn State employees believe Penn State does not retaliate against people who report wrongdoing.

Spotlight PA wants to better understand how Penn State handles reports of misconduct, no matter how small they may seem. We hope to gather information about whether university representatives respond to misconduct, how the different compliance systems function, and whether people who speak up face any form of retaliation.

If you’d like to share your story, use the link below and Spotlight PA Penn State Reporter Wyatt Massey may follow up with you. None of the information you share, including your name, will be published without your explicit consent.

If you’d like to speak with Massey directly, you can contact him on Signal, an encrypted phone messaging app, or call 445-236-0562.

Complete the survey here.

Other possible windows into whether Penn State is living up to its promises are opaque. Information about the effectiveness of its ethics office is delivered to university leaders behind closed doors. The legal requirements of transparency to which Penn State’s academic peers are held are largely nonexistent in Happy Valley, the result of a special carveout from Pennsylvania’s open records law.

Penn State said it encourages misconduct reporting even if people are unsure there is a violation, and its policy is to respond to all reports of “potential sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct in a manner that is timely, supportive, and fair.”

Champagne received a response to his report a year and a half later, a delay that made him question whether complaints are truly given any priority, especially ones more complex than his.

“I assumed that there actually was a system that worked for reporting this kind of stuff,” Champagne told Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times.

In a statement in response to this investigation, Penn State said it examines its practices and makes necessary changes.

“As a predominantly decentralized, large and complex organization, the university’s mechanisms for responding to reports of wrongdoing and reporting on outcomes of the university’s handling of such reports have grown organically throughout its history as needs have been identified,” the university said. “Following internal and external examinations and audits of the university’s previous practices, new policies, protocols and people have been put into place.”

The university has not announced a timeline for a universitywide system for tracking reports of wrongdoing. President Neeli Bendapudi included creating such a system in her diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging plan announced this spring without specifying when it would be implemented.

A 2020 statement from an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, which documented Penn State’s failures in handling sexual misconduct cases in a 2020 report, echoes more than three years later: “Given all of the attention that Penn State has faced in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it is disappointing that so many serious problems have remained at that university system.”

Trouble in the ethics office
By the summer of 2019, fear and frustration began to boil over in Penn State’s Office of Ethics and Compliance.

At least one person was so desperate for help that they appealed directly to then-President Eric Barron.

In an email to Barron, the anonymous reporter said the university’s top ethics officer, Kenya Mann Faulkner, was ridiculing staff within her office in group settings, including calling them names and mocking their physical appearances.

December 2018: Kenya Mann Faulkner begins as chief ethics officer.

February 2019: Penn State Human Resources conducts an investigation of the Office of Ethics and Compliance following an internal complaint.

July 2019: The Office of Ethics and Compliance receives a hotline report describing a hostile work environment created by Faulkner. Later, the ethics office receives a separate hotline report accusing employees of creating a hostile work environment for Faulkner. An anonymous reporter emails then-President Eric Barron informing him of alleged misconduct by Faulkner. Ethics office employees are notified via email that the university has hired the law firm Duane Morris to conduct an internal investigation of the office.

September 2019: David Gray, then-senior vice president for finance and business, tells ethics office employees that the investigation did not find “new behavior” and that the office needs to “hit the reset button,” according to court filings.

Penn State officials had investigated the matter months earlier, the anonymous reporter said, but the situation did not improve. Office morale was deteriorating. Fear of retaliation was discouraging some employees from speaking out, while others, the email read, “expressed a reluctance to do so again given the administration’s apparent tolerance of such conduct.”

“These conditions may soon, if they haven’t already, raise concerns in the larger Penn State community that the university is either not interested in, or able to, address such conduct when it is reported,” the tipster said.

Created in 2013, the Office of Ethics and Compliance handles some internal investigations, oversees systemwide ethics training, and manages the university’s misconduct hotline. The unit, which reports directly to the Board of Trustees’ legal and compliance committee, was positioned as a centerpiece of Penn State’s post-Sandusky reforms.

A former FBI special agent and white-collar crime investigator initially led the office. The Chronicle of Higher Education heralded the unit as Penn State’s push to “put ethics at the center of everything they do.”

Faulkner, whose experience included a series of compliance-related jobs, began as Penn State’s chief ethics and compliance officer in December 2018. Within months, allegations of discrimination and misconduct sparked an internal investigation of her office, according to court filings. Faulkner remained in her role.

In July 2019, the same month Penn State’s president was contacted, the ethics office received an official hotline complaint with similar allegations against Faulkner, according to a copy of the complaint reviewed by Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times.

Typically, an ethics office employee reviews a complaint and shepherds it to the correct oversight unit, though ethics office employees sometimes assist or lead investigations.

But this complaint was about the chief ethics officer.

Three days later, another hotline report arrived. This one accused ethics office employees of creating a hostile work environment for Faulkner, according to a copy reviewed by Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times.

The dueling complaints gave the university a chance to show its commitment to accountability. Instead, the situation marked a step backward.

Penn State hired an attorney with the private law firm Duane Morris to investigate the office and provide legal advice to the university, according to an email shared with Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times.

The firm previously represented Penn State in high-profile cases such as the Sandusky scandal and the 2017 hazing death of a student.

Two months after the complaints, David Gray, then-senior vice president for finance and business, told ethics staff that the investigation did not find “new behavior.” Gray, who retired from Penn State in August 2020, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gray, according to court filings and former employees, told the staff they needed to “hit the reset button.”

The Office of Ethics and Compliance is housed in Rider Building, in downtown State College.
The Office of Ethics and Compliance is housed in Rider Building, in downtown State College. (Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA)
‘How many more need to leave’
In January 2020, several months after the “reset button” meeting, Penn State’s ethics office received another hotline complaint accusing Faulkner of misconduct. In February, the hotline operator told the anonymous reporter the matter was referred to human resources and an “inherent conflict of interest” meant the ethics office could not provide updates about the report through the hotline’s secure messaging system.

In March, the operator suggested the anonymous reporter contact a senior human resources official to discuss the allegations. When the reporter demurred, asserting a desire to remain anonymous, the hotline worker suggested the tipster create an email account “such as Gmail” because the “ability to effectively respond to this or any hotline complaint is often dictated by the level of information received.”

January 2020: The Office of Ethics and Compliance receives another hotline report about alleged misconduct in the ethics office involving Faulkner.

June 2020: Denise Shivery is fired. The former compliance specialist had reported Faulkner’s alleged misconduct to Penn State Human Resources. Duane Morris returns to investigate the ethics office.

September 2020: The Office of Ethics and Compliance receives a third hotline report accusing Faulkner of misconduct.

December 2020: An anonymous reporter emails the Penn State Board of Trustees chair and immediate past chair, attaching a copy of the September 2020 hotline complaint. “A report to you, as trustees, is one of the last options in an attempt to avoid public scrutiny,” the tipster writes.

February 2021: The day after Faulkner presents to the Penn State Board of Trustees Committee on Legal and Compliance, an anonymous reporter emails a trustee alleging turnover in the ethics office is due to “Ms. Faulkner’s significant misconduct/retaliation.”

March 2021: In an email to all ethics office staff, the university’s associate general counsel states that Faulkner is stepping down from her position “effective immediately.”

June 2022: Shivery files a federal lawsuit against Penn State alleging discrimination and retaliation.

January 2023: Penn State and Shivery settle the discrimination lawsuit out of court.

Greg Triguba, an attorney with expertise in corporate compliance and ethics, told Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times that organizations often use independent, third-party hotline services to encourage reporting and protect against retaliation. When the person designated to oversee complaints is named or implicated in a complaint, the hotline should route such reports to another individual or office, he said.

“It would never be a good practice to recommend to a reporter that they go outside the established reporting mechanism channel for communicating to the organization by creating a free email account such as Gmail and others,” he wrote in a statement. “Among other things, there are information security, privacy, and confidentiality risks associated with using such platforms, and it undermines the value of the existing reporting mechanism that the organization has in place.”

In a statement, Penn State defended its actions, saying allegations of misconduct within the Office of Ethics and Compliance were once routed to the vice president for finance and business but are now sent to the university’s lawyers. Multiple offices can receive reports of potential misconduct, Penn State said, and “there also are mechanisms in place to protect confidentiality when a staff or faculty member makes a report about their supervisor or management.”

Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times, after reviewing the office’s staff pages on the Internet Archive, estimated that at least eight people left the unit in two years under Faulkner’s leadership.

The final message the anonymous reporter sent to the ethics office was a question presented as a statement: “How many more need to leave before someone will help them.”

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