Friday, December 01, 2006

The Steel Trap

In the lacrosse case, perhaps no person has played a more unexpected role than Board of Trustees chairman Bob Steel. In the contemporary academy, trustees are normally quite hands-off. But when they do involve themselves in University affairs, they more often than not focus on issues such as upholding standards, promoting intellectual diversity, or working to uphold the University’s financial well-being or overall reputation.

Since March, Steel has avoided all of these customary patterns. He has been remarkably hands-on, vigorously defending the Brodhead administration’s actions to interested parties and journalists behind-the-scenes. His actions do not seem to have been designed to uphold either the University’s reputation or its long-term financial standing.

Occasionally, he has stepped out publicly, though in dubious ways. His most prominent role in this regard came when he rationalized the suspension of the season, pointing not to presumption of innocence, due process, or “victims’ rights,” but instead public relations. As he informed the New Yorker, “We had to stop those pictures [of the players practicing]. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but we had to stop it. It doesn’t necessarily mean I think it was right—it just had to be done.” That quote hardly inspires confidence of a BOT chairman providing moral leadership for the University.

This morning’s Washington Post provides a troubling article on Steel’s new dual role—he is serving as undersecretary of the Treasury while remaining as Duke Board chairman. In fact, the paper reveals that Steel said that he would accept the Treasury job only if allowed to remain as BOT chairman.

A charitable interpretation would contend that Steel prioritized service to Duke over service to his country. Those less charitably inclined might wonder if he feared that a new Board chairman would take a hard look at how the Steel/Brodhead administration has handled events since March, and perhaps steer a new course. A new BOT chair, for instance, might abandon Steel's policies and instead encourage Duke to take concrete actions to uphold and protect the due process rights of its own students, while even using his or her bully pulpit to challenge the more irresponsible voices among the faculty.

The Post story features a long line of quotes from specialists in government ethics denouncing Steel’s action. NYU professor Paul C. Light said that Steel should resign from the Duke board, as “the potential conflicts are significant. His positions violate the spirit of the law that separates public and private service.”

Three other ethics experts, from varying ideological viewpoints, were more direct:

“It’s a conflict of interest,” said Thomas J. Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group. “In his role as the chairman of the Board of Trustees, there will be decisions he will make that will be in conflict with his role as a high-level government official.”

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, agreed. “The concept of having a government job is that you work only on behalf of the American people, and being a trustee creates a divided loyalty,” she said.

Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, added: “He’s creating the very real possibility that he will face situations where he has not just the appearance of a conflict but the reality of a conflict and then will have to decide how to behave. There will always be questions about whether he handled that kind of situation appropriately.”

The obvious conflict: how can Steel avoid choosing between his fiduciary responsibilities as chairman of the Duke trustees and his position at Treasury? His Washington job, the Post notes, “makes him privy to often-sensitive price-moving information about U.S. markets, especially those involving management of the government’s $8.6 trillion in debt.” As Duke spokesperson John Burness conceded, “The trustees have ultimate responsibility for the university in all of its aspects, including financial.”

Steel claims that he will excuse himself from all investment-related decisions made by the Duke Trustees. It’s hard to see how such a recusal could work in practice: at best, Duke would have a chairman of the board who had to absent himself on the financial matters that serve as a primary Board concern. At worst, it would have a BOT chairman who had little else to do except devote his efforts to propping up the Brodhead administration.

There is, of course, another major conflict of interest that the Post article does not explore. Steel is serving two masters—Duke and the federal government. To date, he has exhibited an inexplicable unwillingness to criticize Mike Nifong’s “separate-but-equal” justice system for Duke students. In so doing, he, along with the Brodhead administration, has left in place an image of Duke as an institution whose upper leadership (much less its faculty, such as the Group of 88) does not particularly care about the school’s own students.

Steel’s course of action would seem to contradict both his moral and his fiduciary responsibilities as the Board of Trustees chairman. But his reluctance to use his position to defend Duke students makes more sense when viewed in light of a realization that taking a high profile in Durham might lead to more people noticing his continued Duke affiliation. That, in turn, would lead to more people asking the sort of troubling questions that today’s Post article raises.

As Steel surely recognizes, the Bush administration has enough political problems right now without one of its senior officials becoming involved in an extensively covered case unrelated to his government job. It’s so much easier, from Steel’s professional perspective, to remain silent.

Serving two masters is never easy. In Steel’s case, it would appear to be impossible.


Anonymous said...

“We had to stop those pictures [of the players practicing]. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but we had to stop it. It doesn’t necessarily mean I think it was right—it just had to be done.”

Standing up for what's expedient over what's right. He'll do great in Washington. (And lives that may be directly or indirectly affected in the process of his decisions be damned.)

Anonymous said...

Another embarrassment for Duke. And how long will this travesty continue? Give Nifong credit for understanding how many enablers he has.

Anonymous said...

For the record, a former chairman of the Duke BOT involved himself in the DA race:

"Durham residents Anne and John McMahon, each gave $2,500 to Monks in September. She is a retired health care consultant, and he is former chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees and former president of the American Hospital Association."

Anonymous said...

KC Wow! Your last three posts have been incredible.

What's next the Duke 88 were behind the protests?

Anonymous said...

As an older Ohio lawyer who sometimes wistfully dreams about what it would have been like if I'd begun practice in a state that I perceive offered a better quality of life, oftentimes North Carolina, I thank Mr. Nifong and the crew at Duke for granting me the serenity to smugly shiver in Cleveland and wonder what in the hell goes on down there.
If a county prosecutor pulled that stuff up here he'd be pilloried in the press, and most severely by the local bar.
We have rascals in the prosecutors office, but no one who so obviously panders to the rabble at the expense of civil and personal rights.

Anonymous said...

Bob Steel has been a severe disappointment. He clearly cares much more about his personal legecy of installing Brodhead as President at Duke, rather than either the civil liberties of the indicted lacrosse players, or the long-term health of Duke as a school that people can attend (white males in particular) without fear of discriminatory assault by either the local Durham authorities or the radical elements of the Duke faculty.

By several "inside" accounts, the true malefactor in this case (excepting Nifong, of course)has been much more Steel than Brodhead.

Anonymous said...

I think it is safe to say that Steel is the "man behind the curtain." Only in this episode, one had better pay attention to him.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone happen to notice Bob Steels's major and I mean major financial contribution to the Durham initiative project? This was given after March? What is that about? Was Steel attempting to buy some good Durham PR for Duke? He definitely wasn't trying to buy off Nifong as it would be more to his advantage for this to go to trial and the boys to be proven guilty of something. Because he refused to support these kids for one reason-for a time, they made Duke look bad- not for rape but for "unacceptable behavior". As a Duke parent, I hope that it is true that Brodhead was talked into this position by Steel as at least, it shows Brodhead has or had a heart.

What a position for the Under Sec. of the Treasury to be in? Granted, he didn't hold that position at the time, but he gave Durham a very large sum of money during the time that three students of Duke where he is C of BOT, are indicted for rape by Durham officials? Smacks of some kind of bribe to me....

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a re-write is in order:
“We had to stop those news articles [of a Treasury official heading a Board of Trustees]. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but we had to stop it. It doesn’t necessarily mean I think it was right—it just had to be done.”

Anonymous said...

NOw that there is a money trail with Steel, a Federal employee...Under Secretary of the Treasury given a large sum of money to Duke in March after these allegations came out, he also was the one who brought Brodhead in...smells really bad. A Federal government employee funding this hoax....Where is the FBI? Where is the Department of Justice? The Under Secretary for the United States Treasury a Federal Government Employee in a high level position in Washington who also is Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Duke gave them a large sum of money in March...see the connection... bribery to nail these innocent youn men. Get George Bush on the phone to explain this one.

Anonymous said...

Steel and Nifong are both from Durham and both children of Duke alums. Did they go to school together and know each other growing up? Maybe it would help if you were C of the BOT to have a friend in the DAs office in Durham?

Anonymous said...

In today's Herald-Sun (Friday, Dec. 1), Prof. Crowley apologizes for his earlier comments and retracts his statements. I can appreciate this action, as he is one of the very, very few people at Duke willing to give a public mea culpa. I give his letter in full below:

Lacrosse retraction


On Nov. 13, The Herald-Sun published an "Other Voices" piece by me concerning the Duke lacrosse case. I have subsequently been informed of errors in that letter. In particular my blanket statement about behavior of the lacrosse team was neither fair in general nor applicable to the particular case now in dispute. I apologize for this and any other errors.

The response to my letter has made me more aware of the intense emotions that are associated with this case. These tensions can only be bad for campus-community relations, and I strongly support any efforts to reduce them. Finally, I sincerely hope that lessons learned from the lacrosse case will be applied to future cases in order to lift the standards of justice for all in Durham County.

The writer is a professor at Duke University.

December 1, 2006

Anonymous said...

Bill, thanks for posting Prof. Crowley's apology / retraction. One of the few, indeed...

Kudos to Bill & KC, et al, for helping Prof. Crowley see the error of his ways! And sometimes you think you're not making a difference? You are!

Anonymous said...

And I meant to add - thank you, Prof. Crowley, for your reconsideration and well-retraction. Tht took a lot of courage, and I commend you for that.

Greg Toombs said...

Professor Crowley deserves applause for his clear apology. Professor, your words are appreciated.

People will make mistakes, especially in the heat of rapidly unfodling events.

I don't understand why more of the people who made those mistakes (88 and abettors, Brodhead, many others) do not step up and speak more clearly about their errors and the ongoing miscarriage of justice.

May Crowley be the first of many to recant and repent.

Anonymous said...

McCusker has a nice piece on the Mess re: Crowley's retraction. Apparently, the Herald Sun sat on his letter since last Friday!

Anonymous said...

Re: Bob Steel--Bob grew up in the Trinity Park neighborhood. His contribution was a way for him to give back to that neighborhood, and I am sure it was in the works well before the lax incident. He is generous with his money. Those who make slanderous accusations of bribery should look at the facts--it doesn't even make sense. On the one hand you accuse him of causing the lax problem, and on the other hand you suggest he's trying to bribe Durham officials to affect the case. Isn't this the same kind of double-speak we are upset with from Nifong?

I know Bob Steel and have found him to be a wonderful, caring, intelligent person. He has dedicated years of his life to the service of Duke. He clearly wanted to keep his job as chair of the BOT because he had just started it. While a discussion of potential conflicts of interest is worthwhile, certainly he had those with the Department of Treasury and Duke before he accepted. And I can't quite make the leap--exactly what is this conflict? Something about Duke's finances, but of course their investments are managed by an independent group that I believe does not even report to the BOT......

Let's not just slander people for our own amusement. That would make us hypocrites as we condemn Nifong for his unethical actions and words.

Anonymous said...

You really lost me on this one. I don't see any connection between Steel's conflict of interest question and this lacrosse case. You can't very well say that without the lacrosse hoax no one would notice Duke for anything else.

The potential conflict of interest may be a problem. I'm not very much bothered by it, but this is the first I've heard of it. I hope you won't be offended if I don't just automatically accept your perspective on it.

Anonymous said...

I know you want to find more dirt on Steel, brodhead, etc....but this is over the top. Maybe there is a conflict of interest--I don't know (I certainly wouldn't trust the Wash-Post!!) and, like the previous poster, I fail to see the connection between his DOT job and the lax case.

You have done such great work examing the issues of the lax case and exposing the hoax. Don't ruin it by stretching the truth just to find some more bad guys.

Anonymous said...

agreed, there is no substantial conflict here

his job at treasury reminds me how pitiful the cognitve gifts are of public servants

if u want to read a hilarious book, highly recommend barack obama's recent chef merde--yes, he is indeed stupider than hillary

Anonymous said...

11:56 AM Anon - it's not unusual for a paper to hold letters for a few days before publishing them. Reasons might be waiting for a related follow up article to be published, or simply not having the space.

Not saying that there wasn't any perfidy on the part of the H-S, but it does happen w/o any untoward motives. A ~4 day delay probably isn't very unusual in a large city w/ active letters-to-the-editor writers, don't know what the situation is in H-S land...

Anonymous said...

Not sure if I agree that there is a conflict, but does Duke really need any more negative publicity?
And WHY would Steel want to hold onto the BOT position? Seems odd...He thinks no one else could do the job?

mat said...

Are we sure that Steel's gift to Durham was after the lacrosse incident? It was my recollection that the gift had been promised before but was announced in March.

Anonymous said...

I think 1:44 is correct about the timing of Steel's gift to the TP neighborhood. I think it was planned before the party.

Anonymous said...

From Bob Steel in a Press Release dated April 7:
"When all of the facts are in, Duke will be judged by how it responded to the challenges before us. The trustees recognize these challenges and pledge our personal and collective support over the coming weeks to ensure that Duke University responds in a manner consistent with the great institution we know it to be."

Anonymous said...

Who would have thought it would be Wake and Ga. Tech for the ACC Championship. That would be like Vanderbilt playing Ole Miss for the SEC championship. Just ain't fittin'.

(Of course, we never have to worry about Vandy making it to the championship game, and now that Houston Baker is employed there, the place is even more undeserving.)

Anonymous said...

On a similar note to the previous post--rather than simply bad-mouth Steel, has anyone who knows him, or anyone with authority (e.g., KC or other bloggers) actually tried to contact him to persuade him that Duke should take a more proactive stand in calling for fair treatment of Duke students, and calling for Nifong to request a special prosecutor. I've heard he is actually a very reasonable, thoughtful person. Maybe he would respond to a polite, intellectual plea (as opposed to the accusations being lodged at him in the blogs...)

Anonymous said...

2:18pm Anon - do you have a link to that Steel Press Release dated April 7? Would love to see it in context.


kcjohnson9 said...

To the 2.45:

Steel has been repeatedly contacted, by various groups and individuals, over the past several months, asking him, in respectful tones, to take a position on behalf of due process. He has consistently refused to do so, and in at least one occasion passed on unsubstantiated allegations in the process.

On the conflict of interest angle: conflict of interest law is designed to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, as well as real conflict of interest. This wasn't a Washington Post op-ed: it was a news article with quotes from good-government groups of both the left and the right (how often do Judicial Watch and CREW agree on anything?!)

With regard to the Treasury job and a potential conflict of interest re the lacrosse case, let me respond to Duke '09's serious allegation of "stretching the truth."

I started this and the other posts I've done on the Trustees from a single premise: as their job is to uphold the long-term fiduciary interest of the University (i.e., future good recruitment and fundraising, as well as avoiding potential lawsuits), and as Trustees usually work as a balance to the most radical elements among the faculty, the policies of the Duke Board in this affair make no sense.

So what explains the policies? My answer: I don't know--but the policies can't be explained rationally, from the standpoint of how Trustees are supposed to operate. In an earlier post, I hypothesized that one explanation might be personal--that this board, and Steel in particular, selected Brodhead, and so have a desire to back Brodhead. In this post, I offered another hypothesis--that Steel, with a simultaneous position in Treasury, would not want, for personal reasons, to criticize Nifong (even if doing so conforms to his role as a Trustee), because he would know that such a position would generate furious criticism from the NAACP and elements within the local press, criticism that might make his life in Washington more difficult.

I, frankly, don't know what has motivated Steel in this affair. People who have spoken to Steel about his actions don't seem to have a clear sense of what has motivated him either.

I can say definitively, however, that his actions are not what would have been expected from a BOT chairman, and therefore it seems reasonable to search for alternative explanations for his behavior.

Anonymous said...


I'll continue in the OT vein. Go Deacs! Duke missed beating Wake Forest in the last seconds of their game by having a field goal blocked. The Dukies ended their awful season in a similar fashion, missing a tie with UNC by having an extra point kick blocked. I was happy to see Wake beat Maryland. Since you're at the other end of the state, I don't know if you are a U of Maryland fan. I do cheer for Gary Williams except when his basketball team is playing Duke or Wake.

Anonymous said...

Bob Steel's Press release

Anonymous said...

Prof. Johnson,

I hasten to correct you on the "stretching the truth" comment. That did not come from me; it came from the (even more)anonymous poster right after me at 12:22.

I don't believe you have ever stretched the truth in any factual statement I have read. I quarrel sometimes with interpretations you make, but not even all that often.

I will buy that Steel goes out of his way to defend Brodhead because Steel was so instrumental in bringing him to Duke. I just have a harder time making the connection of his support being motivated by avoiding attention to his conflict of interest. I don't quite get why the NAACP would care about the post of undersecretary of the Treasury.

Ordinarily a potential conflict of interest can be waived by the represented parties. I don't quite see how the government on behalf of all taxpayers can do that, though. The conflict has the potential for benefitting Duke to the detriment of all its competitors and the American taxpayer. Maybe that's why I'm not so bothered by it, sinced my stake in Duke is greater than my stake as a taxpayer.

I'm not closing my mind to your argument on Steele, though.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

P.S. to waiver of conflict of interest:

The Bush administration has not had much trouble waiving conflicts of interest. VP Cheney and Halliburton come to mind.

Anonymous said...

P.S. to waiver of conflict of interest:

The Bush administration has not had much trouble waiving conflicts of interest. VP Cheney and Halliburton come to mind.

Anonymous said...

OMG I hope not! The chances are that there will be some heavy (ahem) black women on the jury or jurors with one as a mother or wife. Most of us are homelier than the women athletes (black or white) can attract. That kind of defense would backfire completely.

Besides, as I understand it, rape is a crime of exercising power rather than sexual desire (except in the date rape context where consent is ambiguous).

CGM said her attackers did not use condoms. The better argument, although again better unstated, is that Duke students would not be so stupid to screw a woman from an escort agency without a condom.

Anonymous said...

From what I gather, there is no medical evidence of rape. Furthermore, the jury would have to conclude that the woman was raped from long distance, should the alibis that Finnerty and Seligmann have hold up (which I am sure they will).

However, if the trial is held in Durham, I still would look for reverse jury nullification. From what I can tell, the people of Durham really don't want any proof one way or another; they just want a conviction.

GPrestonian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

3:09pm Anon -

Thank you for the link!

"When all of the facts are in, Duke will be judged by how it responded to the challenges before us." ~Steel

Unless things change remarkably, this line from the movie "A Knight's Tale" will be (is??) all too applicable:

"You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting."

To paraphrase the last part of that exchange in the movie:

'In what world could you possibly think that your utter failure to offer 'personal and collective support' is 'consistent with the great institution [you] know it to be'?

Anonymous said...

i just think it would be hysterical to parade the girlfriends/former gs in front of the jury, and then focus on the prostitute--trust me, it would be hilarious--if anyone were to make a feature about this case, i vote make it a comedy--cuz precious is haaayyynous!

AMac said...

Don't assume good faith, duke09parent. The 3:23pm comment was left by a troll.

Anonymous said...


'She ain't heavy, she's my precious' ;>)

Anonymous said...

to 3:23--I hope you were joking! Defense lawyers are too smart to completely alienate the jury (as your strategy would.) They will test the very notion of whether a rape occurred. Since there appears to be no evidence that a rape occurred, the entire charge will rest on the credibility of the accuser (the "old fashioned way" as Nifong describes it.) the defense has SO much to work with, the difficulty for them will be prioritizing. And all this assumes the judge does not throw out the IDs--which I guess will be decided in December.

Anonymous said...

was not joking--the ugly defense works--first heard about "the ugly defense" from the mouth of the prominent civil rights lawyer norman siegel--he and a colleague were falsely accused by a beast, and they used her ugliness as a defense--siegel is the former director of the NY branch of the aclu--email him if u think i'm lying--norman is an up front kind of guy

Anonymous said...

To Kempermanx at 2:37 PM - Here is a link to the members of the BOT and contact information:

Anonymous said...

Sorry for posting so much today, I'm obsessing I guess.

Crazy things can happen at a trial. Suppose CGM comes up with a story that her driver was supposed to pick her up at the house and she didn't want to go with Kim? Can she make out a case of kidnapping against Dave for helping her from the steps, where she was nearly passed out, into Kim's car?

Anonymous said...

all i'm saying is this: if the prosecution cannot obtain any testimony that these gentlemen participated in any "anti-female" behaviors in the past, the ugly defense would work

let's put it this way: would anyone believe that donald trump would burgularize a cheesesteak stand?

Anonymous said...

the "ugly defense" (as you put it) would be considered racist in this case. It would backfire. Plus, they don't need to fabricate anything. they have enough hard evidence--including the lack of hard evidence.

Anonymous said...

Crowley's apology -

I suspect he was alerted to the possiibility of a libel claim - though I'll give him benefit of the doubt that he was sincere - sometimes the are not mutually exclusive.


Anonymous said...

An attorney may want to speak to this--but a libel claim is pretty tough to prove. You'd have to show that someone made untrue slanderous comments, that they knew the comments were untrue, and that the subject of the comments suffered real (monetary?) damage as a direct result of the comments. I don't think that was Crowley's motivation. I think he has a conscience--and probably thought he was using that conscience for his original letter.

Anonymous said...

so now it's "racist" to point out that intelligent and handsome white men don't find the preciouses of the world attractive? give me a break! you PC types make me want to hurl

all i'm saying is that this is what people were saying in private, and it would not surprise me if some of the lacrosse players, feeling ripped off, called her a fat whore, which could have motivated dear precious to tell the lie in the first place

i'd get an all-black-male jury: why do u think they chase after white women so much?

AMac said...

So now it's "trollish" to portray the hoax in terms of crude racialist stereotypes that fail to fit the known facts?

Why ... yes.

(For the record. I won't respond further.)

Anonymous said...

Sod off, troll! Shouldn't you be clocking in somewhere-- stocking shelves at K-Mart or delivering pizzas or serving five year old outstanding warrants for Mike "Put me in a Straightjacket, Somebody!" Nifong? sic semper tyrannis

kcjohnson9 said...

Sorry Duke '09 for the mixup!

One final point on the conflict of interest issue, keeping in mind that the law is designed to minimize the appearance of conflict as well as an actual conflict.

As undersec'y of Treasury, it would seem to be in Steel's interest to minimize criticism of him for his conduct as Duke BOT chair. His issuing a statement demanding that local authorities end their "separate-but-equal" policy regarding Duke students (obviously he wouldn't use that term) would be the right thing to do, but would generate controversy as well.

The whole purpose of conflict of interest law is to avoid the reality or just the appearance that an individual's actions in job A are really motivated by concerns related to job B.

The administration and Duke, of course, can both waive conflict of interest concerns, as was done in this case. But, as the Post article points out, there doesn't appear to be even one prominent good-government group that's buying this waiver.