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[January 20, 2013]
Investigating the hoax
SOUTH BEND, Jan 20, 2013 (South Bend Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Facing questions about what they knew of the Manti Te'o catfishing scam and when, University of Notre Dame leaders are defending their decision not to reveal it before the Jan. 7 BCSnational championship football game.
Administrators involved in responding to the hoax spoke with the South Bend Tribune on Saturday, explaining how they learned about it and how they decided to proceed. They stand by those decisions. Two officials spoke on the record but The Tribune agreed to a request to quote only university spokesman Dennis Brown by name.
"Hindsight is 20/20. We handled it as best we could, going on what we had," Brown said.
Brown described a chronology of the university's investigation and decisionmaking. The timeline at right is based on that information."Like most everybody else, except perhaps the makers of the documentary 'Catfish' and fans of that form, we were utterly stunned to hear the news on the first day and had difficult time getting our arms around it," Brown said.
According to the administrators, the stunning news came on the morning after Christmas, when All-American linebacker Te'o called head coach Brian Kelly and Defensive Coach Bob Diaco from Hawaii. University fficials decided early on that it appeared no crime had been committed, Brown said.
"And even if it had," Brown said, "we weren't the victim. That was Manti, and we believed then and we believe now that it's his and his family's decision on whether to contact law enforcement." That's also why university leaders decided it was up to Te'o to decide at what point he wanted to go public with the news that he had been the victim of an elaborate hoax, Brown said.
University leaders initially were concerned that the hoax might involve NCAA violations, extortion, gambling or some effort to influence the outcome of the national championship game, Brown said. But the investigation revealed no such motives, he said.
The story is familiar to all by now: While leading the Catholic university's football team to a 12-0 regular season, Te'o on Sept. 11 suffered the death of his beloved grandmother, Annette Santiago, then just six hours later, the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, to leukemia. The story was told dozens of times in written and broadcast news reports throughout the season.
But a large part of that storyline was just a story, the world learned a few days ago. That's when Deadspin reported that was no evidence that the woman named Lennay Kekua ever existed, suffered serious injuries in an auto accident, was treated for leukemia or died of that disease.
After Te'o provided Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick with a full account of his relationship with the online woman he knew as Lennay, there was general agreement that the student-athlete had been the victim, Brown said.
How the university should proceed was the topic of discussions between top administrators for a week, Brown said. The decision to hire outside investigators was made Dec. 29.
"We talked about the need to respect Manti's privacy, since this was a personal issue, not a university issue, but at the same time focusing on any concerns there might be, relevant to the university," Brown said.
On Jan. 2, the day the football team and the athletic staff flew to Florida to prepare for the national championship game, the university hired a private investigation firm."We asked them to focus on any threats to the university or its reputation, by providing more information about the so-called Kekua family that might help us understand motives, or whether they might have had any contact with others at Notre Dame," said Brown, who declined to name the firm.
Marianne Corr, the university attorney, provided the investigators an inventory and summary of events, plus a time-stamped photo of "Lennay" that an online source had sent Te'o on Dec. 21.
By the next day, investigators were back in touch.
"They reported that nobody by the name Kekua appeared in any of several sophisticated databases that were available to the firm. They told her it would be very unusual for one person not to appear in one of these data bases and virtually impossible for there not to be any mention of an entire family," Brown said.
Te'o had told university representatives that "Lennay" had said she had two brothers, a sister and a mother, and he provided the names of those claimed family members.
Brown said the investigators concluded "the entire family was fictitious, because of their inability to find them, and that the investigation should turn to trying to identify the woman who had been talking to Manti." Te'o had told university officials that Lennay had given him her family's home address on Water Street, in Carson, Calif.
Investigators determined that is a real address, with a house there that belonged to members of a family named Tuiasosopo, including Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a young man, has become the primary suspect in the hoax.
(Te'o told ESPN on Friday that Ronaiah Tuiasosopo contacted him Wednesday -- the day the Deadspin article was posted -- and admitted he led the hoax.) The investigation ordered by Notre Dame was limited to the electronic search, Brown said. Investigators did not interview Te'o or his family, nor did anyone attempt to contact Ronaiah Tuiasosopo or any of his relatives.
In response to questions, university officials said the investigators did not examine cell phone records, e-mails or other electronic communication to determine the length or extent of Te'o's communication over the past few years with the person claiming to be Lennay Kekua, nor did the university ask Te'o to take a lie detector test.
On Jan. 4, the investigators reported finding public Twitter posts between individuals making joking reference to Te'o's relationship with "Lennay," and alluding to it being a "catfish" scheme. They told Corr that the evidence seemed to show that Te'o had been victimized.
Brown said no one in the Notre Dame administration was aware of the term "catfishing" before then.
"Investigators provided copies of tweets reflecting discussions about the scheme that seemed to involve this individual Ronaiah Tuiasosopo in some capacity," Brown said.
Corr called the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, and Swarbrick to explain to them what a catfish scheme is and said this appeared to be one. "They agreed that it now seemed absolutely certain that Manti was a victim of a hoax," Brown said.
In effect, the university had decided that Manti was telling the truth. The investigation ended that day, Jan. 4.
On Jan. 5, university administrators met with Brian and Ottilia Te'o, Manti's parents, at the hotel where the team was staying in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Corr gave the couple the results of the investigation.
"The Te'os advised us they would be retaining the services of an agent (on Jan. 8) after the game," Brown said.
The family and the university agreed that Manti would tell his agent the full facts when he signed and university administrators would assist in any way they could. "It was agreed that any disclosure of the hoax would be made by Manti in consultation with (his agent)," Brown said.
Brown said Notre Dame administrators advised Te'o, if he faced media questions about his girlfriend's death and the impact on him during the season, he should indicate that he wanted to keep his attention focused on the game.
Some of the small group of administrators wrestling with the Te'o problem had argued for disclosing the news immediately, the other official said. And university leaders discussed over several days whether they should disclose the hoax to the public before the bowl game, Brown said.
But at some point in the couple days just before the bowl game, it seemed apparent that exposing the hoax then would not be in the best interest of the teams or the individuals involved, Brown said.
"There was kind of a realization that this would be a circus. It would be unfair to Alabama, it would be unfair to all the other players not involved, that this suddenly becomes bigger than the national championship football game -- bearing in mind that we never intended that it would stay private," said one university official.
Notre Dame leaders also wondered if that's what the hoaxers wanted -- to cause such a disruption that it would influence the outcome of the game. "Did they want to destroy the atmosphere of the national championship game " the official said.
In consultation with other top administrators, Jenkins made the final decision: disclosure must come from Te'o and Notre Dame would not announce the news before the game was played.
They considered the matter delayed, not closed.
"No one ever thought this would not become public. We all knew it had to become public ... and we thought we (university leaders and Te'o's agent) had agreement on that point," said the other Notre Dame official.
In his interview Friday with ESPN, Te'o said a group of people connected with Tuiasosopo showed up, after the team's curfew, at the Notre Dame team hotel in Florida. One of the group took photos in the lobby and called Te'o and asked if he wanted to come down and join them, saying Lennay was expected there. Te'o hung up.
Te'o said in the ESPN interview that he told a couple of close friends about the hoax. It is not known how many Fighting Irish players knew about the hoax on the night of the bowl game.
Notre Dame lost to Alabama 42-14.
On Jan. 8, coaches and team members left Florida, with most players flying to their hometowns for the remaining week of winter break.
On Jan. 9, Notre Dame administrators received a summary of Twitter posts from the investigation agency that seemed to provide further evidence of the catfish scheme. The posts seemed to indicate that Tuiasosopo was involved, but there was not definitive evidence, Brown said. Those tweets were passed along to Te'o and his agent.
They thought Te'o planned to reveal the scam himself a week ago in an interview with a major news organization. But the day came and went, and nothing happened.
Notre Dame first learned the story had broken when it was posted on the Deadspin website Wednesday.
The university immediately issued a written statement. "While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators," the statement read, in part.
Swarbrick held a news conference Wednesday evening to provide more information and to answer questions from reporters. On Thursday, he publicly urged Te'o to provide his side of the story.
Brown said university leaders have never had any reason to doubt Te'o or his word, and never had concerns that the extent of Te'o's relationship with the dead "girlfriend" was overstated last fall.
The wearing of leis and chants of "Man-ti Te'o!" by fans during games was a grassroots phenomenon, Brown said. "It was not orchestrated by the university in any way," he said. "We've looked back as an institution to ask, did we push that story as a tragedy We don't think we did," he said.
The impact of this episode on Notre Dame and college athletics in general isn't yet known.
"Throughout college sports, there's been a lot of conversation about whether to regulate the social media habits of student athletes," Brown said. So far, Notre Dame has limited its efforts to educating student athletes about the dangers of social media, as it does for all its students.
"We've chosen not to tell student athletes they can't have a Facebook account or a Twitter feed," Brown said. "This (catfishing) is a completely different component ... so it's too early for us to know really whether we would revisit our approach." It's too early to say what lessons have been learned from the Te'o hoax experience and whether it will prompt any changes.
"Once the dust has settled, we'll certainly take a look at the issues," Brown said.
"Certainly after the George O'Leary situation, Notre Dame and many other universities changed how they vetted resumes," he said. He was referring to when O'Leary was hired in 2001 as Notre Dame's head football coach but resigned a few days later because of inaccuracies on his resume about his academic and athletic background.
"I think it's possible we'll take a closer look at how we deal with high profile student athletes. We'll be having a lot of discussions as we go forward," Brown said.
He and others emphasized that the hoax revelation was Te'o's personal matter, and that's why university leaders left the timing to him. "It really was his story to tell," Brown said.
"Given what we knew beginning on the 26th (of December) and over the next couple days," Brown said, "we think that we made the best decisions that we could given the absolutely bizarre nature of this situation." facebook.com/tribune. margaretfosmoe Follow me @mfosmoe Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6329 ------ How it unfolded Dec. 26 --About 6 a.m. local time, Manti Te'o, at home in Hawaii, phones Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco in South Bend and informs Diaco he may be the victim of a hoax. He later phones Head Coach Brian Kelly with the same information.
--Kelly contacts Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick and Lou Nanni, vice president for university relations, with the information.
--Nanni, in turn, contacts the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame's president; Marianne Core, the university's general counsel; Matt Storin, Notre Dame's communications executive; and Dennis Brown, the chief university spokesman.
--Based on an initial assessment, it is determined that the matter is not criminal in nature and does not involve any university or NCAA violations.
Dec. 27 --Te'o arrives in South Bend from Hawaii about noon. He meets with Swarbrick for about two hours that evening to discuss the matter.
--Swarbrick provides a summary of the meeting to Corr and sends her his notes.
--Corr briefs the communications team (Storin, Brown, Nanni and Brian Hardin, football media relations program director) on the meeting.
Dec. 28 --Te'o and Swarbrick meet again for about 45 minutes to review the notes from the previous day's meeting. Swarbrick instructs Te'o to contact Corr with any questions about the university's response going forward.
--Swarbrick sends his updated notes to Corr.
--Te'o phones Corr later in the day. Corr instructs him to retain any evidence of communications between Lennay Kekua and any members of her family, including a time-stamped photo sent to him by a person claiming to be Lennay Kekua on Dec. 21.
--The matter is turned over completely to the university.
Dec. 30 --Corr briefs the communications team on Swarbrick's interview with Te'o and informs them that she intends to retain the services of an outside agency to investigate any potential threats to the university or its reputation related to the possible hoax.
--Corr briefs Jenkins on Swarbrick's two meetings with Te'o.
--Swarbrick, in turn, assesses Te'o's parents of the situation.
Dec. 31 --Corr, Swarbrick, Jenkins and Jenkin's chief of staff, Ann Firth, meet in the morning. They review Swarbrick's notes and finalize the decision to retain the services of an outside investigative agency.
--Te'o forwards the photo of Lennay from Dec. 21 to Corr.
Jan. 2 --Corr retains the services of an outside investigative agency and provides the agency with Swarbrick's notes and the Dec. 21 picture of Lennay Kekua.
--The football team and Athletic Department staff fly from South Bend to Florida to prepare for the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship game.
Jan. 3 --Investigators contact Corr and inform her that they can find no evidence of anyone named Kekua. They conclude the family is fictitious. They also inform her that Lennay Kekua's address in California is a house belonging to various members of the Tuiasosopo family, including Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, one of the alleged perpetrators of the hoax.
--The agency requests additional information, including Lennay Kekua's and Manti Te'o's cell phone numbers and information identifying any electronic devices used by Te'o to communicate with Lennay or other members of the Kekua family.
Jan. 4 --Investigators again contact Corr. They tell her they have tweets demonstrating Te'o has been the victim of a catfish scheme. They provide her with copies of the tweets.
--Corr contacts Jenkins and Swarbrick with the information. They all agree that Te'o has been the victim of a hoax and that it is up to him when and how disclose it to the public.
--The university suspends the investigation.
Jan. 5 --Swarbrick meets with Te'o's parents at the team hotel in Florida and informs them of the catfish scheme. Te'o's parents advise that Te'o intends to retain the services of a sports agency after the championship game. Both sides agree that Te'o will inform the agency of the hoax. They further agree that any decision concerning how and when to disclose the hoax will be made by Te'o and the agency, but that the university will be kept informed of the process.
Jan. 6 --Corr briefs the communications team about the catfish scheme and Swarbrick's conversation with the Te'os.
Jan. 7 --Notre Dame loses to Alabama, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship game.
Jan. 9 --The university receives a compilation of tweets related to the hoax from the investigative agency.
--The university provides all of the information it has about the hoax to Te'o's agency, Creative Artists Agency.
Jan. 16 --About 3:30 p.m., Deadspin.com attempts to contact Hardin for comment on the hoax. Hardin is away from his desk.
--Deadspin breaks the story about 4 p.m. on its website.
--Brown learns of the story shortly after 4 p.m. He consults with Storin, Nanni and Hardin and they agree the university needs to release its statement about the matter.
--The university releases a statement to the media about 5:10 p.m. It posts the statement to Facebook, Twitter and the school's website.
--Swarbrick holds a press conference at 8 p.m. to answer questions about the hoax.
-- Compiled by Tribune staff writer Erin Blasko ___ (c)2013 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) Visit the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) at www.southbendtribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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