Wendell Courtney pic

This lawyer talked to a Penn State administrator about ‘child abuse’ in 2001; why don’t we know what they said?

This month marks four years since the onset of the scandal. Yet little has been reported about former Penn State attorney Wendell Courtney.

Beneath topics such as holiday pay issues, development office reviews and other routine affairs one would expect to see on the timesheet of a lawyer representing a major university, a squiggly bracket highlights a consultation with a Penn State employee.

On February 11, 2001, Wendell Courtney billed 2.9 hours to Penn State University. It concerned a conference call with then Penn State VP of finance and business Gary Schultz, legal research and another conference. The topic listed on the timesheet is “re reporting of suspected child abuse.”

The conversation between the two men could provide details important to the still-ongoing criminal case against Penn State’s former administrators. Those men — Schultz, Graham Spanier and Tim Curley — await trial on charges of perjury, failure to report, endangering the welfare of children, obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy that could send each to prison for 39 years.

If and when the case goes to trial, prosecutors must prove the three men were aware of possible wrongdoing. The defense will try to show they had no reason to think Sandusky had engaged in illegal activity. They learned of the alleged abuse from Sandusky in 2001 only from accounts by then-assistant coach Mike McQueary and legendary football coach Joe Paterno. The number of people privy to anything the former administrators were told is small.

One person who might know is Courtney. After all, says Tom Kline, a Philadelphia attorney who represented a Sandusky victim, Courtney “gave advice and billed for it.”

But details are scant. This month marks four years since the onset of the scandal. Since November 2011, we’ve seen Penn State release the Freeh Report and the Paterno family follow with a rebuttal. We’ve seen the NCAA hit Penn State with severe sanctions and retract them under pressure. We’ve seen countless articles and television reports. Yet little has been reported about Courtney.

He last spoke publicly in 2011. Courtney told the Centre Daily Times and New York Times he had not been made aware of the 2001 shower incident.  

All that’s known about the conversation and research billed by Courtney stems from the timesheet, first revealed publicly in 2012, as part of the Freeh Report and the second grand jury presentment. The Freeh group said Courtney declined to be interviewed, and no statement from Courtney or note of an interview with him is in the grand jury presentment.

The extent to which Courtney could talk is not up for debate, according to information from Penn State University. Through a spokesperson, Penn State insisted it has waived its attorney-client privilege with regards to sharing the billable hours and any testimony he may provide to authorities.

The 2.9 hours spent discussing and researching the “reporting of suspected child abuse” account for a duration of time the length of “Saving Private Ryan.” And what was said and done by Schultz and Courtney during that time remains a public mystery.

Courtney billable hours
2012 grand jury presentment

Courtney’s rise at Penn State

Like the university’s esteemed football coaching staff, Penn State’s legal team was once defined by longevity. Delbert McQuaide, an acclaimed attorney, took over as outside counsel in 1970 and worked with Penn State into the mid-90s when he was stricken with cancer and later died from the disease. Courtney assumed the go-to role after McQuaide’s death.

For more than a decade, he had enjoyed a position with the reputed State College law firm McQuaide Blasko, working primarily with McQuaide shortly after graduating law school at Dickinson College in 1977. Courtney, who declined to comment for this article, was seen by his peers as the typical upper class All-American male. He worked as a research analyst for the Republican Caucus of the Pennsylvania Senate before starting with McQuaide Blasko, and could dress and schmooze with the best of them, particularly on the golf course.

He golfed his freshman year at Penn State and another three at Dickinson College where he spent the remaining years of college. His LinkedIn profile also states he won seven racquetball state titles in high school. Courtney’s passion for country club sports continued into his professional career. According to a 2008 article from the Centre Daily Times, he had by that point won the Centre Hills Country Club’s amateur title 17 times.  

Much of his social life centered on that country club, where he lived nearby with his wife, Linette. They also partook in community service, including with the Special Olympics and, like dozens of other prominent State College residents and Penn State alumni, Sandusky’s former charity The Second Mile.

Penn State’s outside counsel met with the university’s top leaders and consulted with them on any number of issues that could arise. As outside counsel, Courtney would have been poring over contracts, inspecting real estate deals and giving advice – not litigating. The job was all about preventing problems.

“He was good at what he did,” said a lawyer who worked with him at McQuaide Blasko. “I never saw him have any difficulties, unable to handle any issues he was confronting as an attorney.”

In 2010, Penn State chose to hire a general counsel to represent the university, and Courtney and others with the McQuaide Blasko firm were pushed aside. He was named general counsel emeritus in March of the same year.

Courtney
Samuel, Anderson & Sacks

Close relationships

Lawyers acting as counsel for any organization are tasked with representing the organization, not the people who work for it. That’s basically rule one. It’s a fine line to walk when you’re meeting with the same people almost every day. Grand jury testimony, emails released as part of the Freeh Report and opinions from Courtney’s colleagues may shed light on how Courtney walked it.

In late December 2010, when the grand jury was investigating Sandusky and Penn State, Schultz contacted Courtney after a conversation with the current university counsel Cynthia Baldwin, according to the Freeh Report. Courtney then responded in an email, “(t)he attached is the last thing in my Penn State file re Sandusky. There is nothing regarding the issues we discussed.” The attachment was a letter pertaining to Sandusky’s retirement, not anything related to the 1998 or 2001 Sandusky incidents.

About two weeks later, in early 2011, Baldwin and Courtney spoke, according to the Freeh Report. In a follow-up email, Courtney wrote that he had no file on the matter they discussed and that he recalled somebody had contacted Children and Youth Services “to advise of the situation.” No record has been produced of anyone contacting authorities after the 2001 incident.

Courtney then sent another email to Schultz. “Gary – Cynthia Baldwin called me today to ask what I remembered about JS issue I spoke with you and Tim about circa eight years ago,” it read. “I told her what I remembered. She did not offer why she was asking, nor did I ask her. Nor did I disclose that you and I chatted about this.”  

Schultz

Schultz

Penn State University

During his tenure as outside counsel, Courtney would also have spent time advising the university president.

“Spanier would not go across the street without getting Wendell Courtney’s permission,” said Jim Bryant, a longtime Centre County attorney who has opposed Penn State in cases.

Most of the prosecutors’ charges hinge on being able to prove the former administrators were made to believe Sandusky had possibly engaged in sexual assault. According to the grand jury presentment, Schultz and Curley were briefed first by Paterno, who had heard about the incident from McQueary. Courtney’s legal research and two conferences with Schultz came later on the same day the administrators spoke with Paterno. Schultz and Curley talked with McQueary about a week later.

In Sandusky’s trial, jurors acquitted him of the count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with regards to the 2001 victim but convicted him on counts of indecent assault, unlawful contact with minors, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children. That victim settled a civil suit with Penn State.

The perjury charge for Schultz and Curley in particular deals with what they were thinking and knew at the time compared to what they told the grand jury years later. As mentioned above, Kline considers Courtney to be one of very few people who possibly know what they knew and what they were thinking when first briefed about the shower incident by Paterno.

Anthony Lubrano views the situation as an administrator checking up on what he heard and a lawyer properly counseling him because none believed based on what they had been told that any of Sandusky’s behavior rose to criminality.

“He did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Lubrano said. “He chose not to tell the full board any of the particulars because they didn’t believe something happened was criminal. Courtney’s name got dragged through the mud.

“Those hours could be important to the extent of (getting into the) guys’ minds that were charged and what they were thinking at the time. I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe there’s a case against them.”

When Courtney spoke to the media in November 2011, he acknowledged to the New York Times he was briefed on a 1998 investigation of Sandusky that was later dropped by local prosecutors. In an interview with the Centre Daily Times, Courtney said he was not made aware of the 1998 incident or the 2001 shower incident. And if he had been notified of sexual abuse allegations by Sandusky, he said, he would have told them to notify the authorities.

“Had I ever been asked, my response would have been, ‘Absolutely and immediately,’” Courtney said to the Centre Daily Times. “Had I ever had any inkling that Sandusky was engaging in behavior with children that was even remotely improper, nothing on God’s green earth would have kept me from making certain that the allegations were reported to the police authorities and thoroughly investigated.”

If a counsel for a university believed something criminal possibly happened and the administrators were not acting accordingly his next step as an attorney for a university should have been taking the information to the university’s board, said Jim Robenalt, a Cleveland attorney and expert on the rules of professional conduct associated with attorneys representing organizations. This decision would have respected the confidentiality of the conversation while relaying information to a larger group in a better position to make an objective, proper decision.

Robenalt stressed that Courtney was tasked with treating the university as his client and protecting the organization from the people running it.

“The lawyer had to look out for the interest of the university, not the individuals,” he said. “No matter who it was.”

Old Main Penn State
Flickr via ShiDairyProduct

Out of State College

State College has a weird way of keeping the Sandusky scandal fresh because the key players and their family members are still visible around town, crossing paths with each other and students and townies in odd ways that only seem to happen in a college town. Sue Paterno and Dottie Sandusky, for instance, have been said to still attend the same hair salon. McQueary was reported to be living in his old bedroom at his parents’ house. Schultz could sometimes be found dining at the Tavern. At least for a while Spanier appeared everywhere, from volleyball and basketball games to the movie theater to the on-campus racquetball courts.   

Whereas the others have chosen to stay or are unable to leave, Courtney left State College. He may have escaped close scrutiny, but his life has changed since the scandal.

He now lives in Harrisburg and works for the firm Smigel, Anderson & Sacks. A partner of the firm wrote on LinkedIn that Courtney’s expertise in labor and employment law had “enhanced greatly the firm’s ability to serve our clients.” A representative for McQuaide Blasko declined to discuss how his employment ended with them, only commenting that Courtney’s last day of employment with the firm was April 2, 2012.

That picturesque, 6,700 square-foot home overlooking the country club? Courtney and his wife sold it in May 2013, according to real estate records. Former neighbors say he comes back for golf at Centre Hills on occasional weekends.

His name hasn’t come up publicly with the scandal since the Freeh Report and grand jury presentment of 2012. It’s only the pieces of the university to which he was once connected that arise.

In 2013, when McQueary testified at a preliminary hearing, he told a story about a conversation with Paterno from 2010. Rumors were swirling around State College at that time. McQueary said Paterno directed some blame toward the building at the center of Penn State’s campus, where Schultz and Spanier worked and where Courtney would have paid them numerous visits.

“Old Main,” McQueary said Paterno told him, “screwed it up.”

×