HELENA — The state decided to settle claims that the University of Montana mishandled the investigation of a former school quarterback accused of rape rather than re-open the widely publicized case, an attorney representing the state said Wednesday.
The decision was made even though the state believes school officials acted properly, said attorney Dale Cockrell, who was hired by the Montana Department of Administration’s Risk Management and Tort Defense Division.
Under the agreement, the state will pay Jordan Johnson $245,000 to drop his claims that school officials had predetermined his guilt after the rape accusation was made in 2012 and ran a biased investigation that resulted in a recommendation of expulsion.
Johnson was not expelled, and a jury in 2013 acquitted him of rape.
The settlement between Johnson, the university and the Montana University System was approved Tuesday by District Judge Deann Cooney of Helena after months of mediation. The money will come from a fund that state agencies and universities pay into to resolve legal claims.
Cockrell said the state would have prevailed in a lawsuit over the investigation, but officials believed it would be better to settle the matter than go through the dispute again.
“We believed it was just better to put this matter to bed,” Cockrell said.
Neither the woman who made the allegation nor her representatives were involved in the mediation or settlement, Cockrell said.
“It would not have been appropriate,” he said.
The settlement lists 11 claims made by Johnson, including violations of due process and civil rights along with sexual discrimination, negligence and destroying evidence.
David Paoli, Johnson’s attorney, said he had drafted a lawsuit but Johnson instead wanted to pursue a settlement.
“Any student accused of wrongdoing deserves a fair and impartial hearing of the facts of his or her case,” Johnson said in a statement provided by Paoli. “Officials at the University of Montana — people who were in positions of great power — were unfair and biased. Their misconduct made my family and me suffer unnecessarily, both emotionally and financially.”
The case against Johnson — the Grizzlies’ starting quarterback at the time — received national attention and was the subject of a book by “Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer titled “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.”
The accusations also came against the backdrop of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether rape allegations were being mishandled by the university, police and Missoula County prosecutors. Federal prosecutors signed settlement agreements with the university, the city and county prosecutors that called for changes in reporting, response and oversight involving sexual assault cases.
The accusations against Johnson initially prompted an internal university investigation that is the subject of his settlement. That investigation led to a recommendation for Johnson’s expulsion by a university court that handles complaints of student conduct violations. The expulsion recommendation was appealed and upheld by university President Royce Engstrom.
Johnson then appealed to Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. Johnson was not expelled; Krakauer is suing for the state to release information about what action Christian took.
Christian has said federal law does not allow the release of such information about students. The case is before the Montana Supreme Court.
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