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The Whistle-Blower: 2008 Richmonder of the Year

How one anonymous tipster, aka Harry Potter, incensed a university, brought down two VCU deans and forced Richmond to re-evaluate its leadership.



In a town run by corporate moneymen and old political hands, 2008 will be remembered as the year of severance. Richmond's power structure turned upside down: L. Douglas Wilder is no longer mayor and the Rev. Dwight Jones, a protAcgAc of Wilder's rival Henry Marsh, celebrates his inaugural this weekend. Virginia Commonwealth University's president, the Napoleonic presence that is Eugene P. Trani, is a lame duck after a series of scandals. Former Richmond Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe, who oversaw the most dramatic reduction in violent crime the city has seen in recent history, commands the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina.

The process of losing the city's three most powerful public servants — Wilder, Trani and Monroe — in a span of 12 months left a vacuum, a great expanse between the politicians and the people who think they run this town. That the three men were an interlocking troika of power was no accident. Wilder was the epicenter, a political populist and history-making prodigal son, who easily commanded 80 percent of the popular vote to take office. Trani connected Wilder, a close ally who also teaches at VCU, to Richmond's corporate power brokers. Monroe was the extension cord that connected them both to the broader community, particularly the city's majority black population. And Wilder connected Monroe to Trani and the university.

But 2008 will also be remembered for one person who pulled the plug. With the click of a mouse, an administrator at the university who, among other things, advises students on graduation requirements, disconnected the city's reigning power structure with an anonymous e-mail. In it, he questioned the legitimacy of Monroe's now-infamous bachelor's degree, obtained from Trani's VCU, and signed off under the pen name of that magical wand bearer, Harry Potter.

Whistle-blowers are typically relegated to corporate fiefdoms, such as Enron or Pfizer, but in this case Harry Potter served a broader constituency. He had no exclusive information; in fact, the story of Monroe's erroneous degree was widely known within certain administrative halls at the university, and was unwittingly broadcast in the Richmond Times-Dispatch a year earlier. While few paid attention, it was no state secret that Monroe obtained a four-year degree after taking only two courses at VCU, a clear violation of the most basic graduation requirement: Students can transfer but must take at least 30 credits at the university to get their degrees. Monroe had earned only six.

There were no attempts to hide this, mind you. Monroe told a reporter for the Times-Dispatch that he'd taken only two courses and then graduated, which won a public attaboy from Trani himself, which might say something about this city's unwavering commitment to good PR. That Harry Potter, with a series of e-mails a year later, could catch the attention of VCU's Board of Visitors and the General Assembly also suggests that this city is willing to break that commitment when it matters.

But someone had to blow the whistle. It could have been just about anybody with knowledge of VCU's graduation requirements — the university has more than 30,000 students and a city full of alumni — but no one noticed until Harry Potter showed up.

The fallout was immense. Trani retired, Wilder called it quits and Monroe has been dogged by the degree scandal ever since. For taking a risk, doing what was right and shaking up a city, Style Weekly names the anonymous tipster, the wizardly whistle-blower, as its 2008 Richmonder of the Year.

Harry Potter's impact on Richmond is both symbolic and painfully real: The administrator remains anonymous, granting an interview with Style only on the condition of anonymity, with his lawyer by his side. He also succeeds the man at the center of the controversy, Monroe, who was named Style's 2007 Richmonder of the Year.

The two men are a study in contrasts. One is low on the administrative food chain at one of the city's largest employers, arguably its most influential institution. The other achieved near sainthood for presiding over a miraculous drop in the murder rate, from 95 homicides in 2004 to 32 homicides in 2008, a nearly 300 percent improvement. So lauded was Monroe that he considered running for mayor. (If he'd run, political observers say, he would have been an instant frontrunner.)

The dramatic turn of events and ensuing soap opera following Harry Potter's anonymous e-mails are well-documented. For much of summer and into fall, the daily blow-by-blow of who allegedly pressured whom and the controversial investigations by the VCU Board of Visitors dominated local headlines. An unnerved Trani suffered a heart attack in his office just days after returning, from a sabbatical, to deal with the mess. Two of the university's highest-ranking administrators — Robert D. Holsworth, dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Jon Steingass, dean of VCU's University College — resigned as a result. VCU says they were forced out, while both Holsworth and Steingass deny they were asked to resign.

It all started with Harry Potter's four-page e-mail. It was sent on May 15 to the wife of Thomas Rosenthal, rector of the board of visitors; the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees collegiate accreditation; and local news media. Initially, only one reporter inquired about the allegations — WTVR-TV's Mark Holmberg, a former Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist. (Style wasn't included in the e-mail blast.) The anonymous tipster says he was surprised that there was only one inquiry about his e-mail. The Times-Dispatch initially appeared disinterested, he says.

The initial electronic missive went out just as Monroe was announcing he was leaving Richmond to take the top job in Charlotte, precisely one year after receiving his degree. After stewing with colleagues over what they perceived as an injustice for the better part of a year, Harry Potter saw Monroe slipping away, and the whole ordeal being swept under the rug. His effort was an act of responsibility, he says.

“It was now or never,” he says. “Something had to be done. It was just so clearly wrong, so extremely wrong from the beginning. … It kind of went away, and it stuck in my craw.”

The e-mail narrative was aggressive and included allegations that were part hearsay and fact. It was, perhaps, a bit knee-jerk — even the pen name, says the administrator, came to him on a whim with no real personal significance. “I've never read a Harry Potter book in my life,” he says, with a surprised shrug. “I don't even remember doing it. I don't know what hit me that night.”

The story of how the degree was awarded has been contested, turning into an inconclusive he-said-she-said controversy that clouded the internal investigation launched by the VCU Board of Visitors in the summer and later by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission of the General Assembly. There is, however, an established storyline. It started early, when Wilder hired Monroe as Richmond's police chief.

Monroe, a little-known chief of police from Macon, Ga., had made his intentions known to complete his college degree after years of off- and on-again study. He knew that not having the degree made him a long shot to get the Richmond job, which required one. Monroe, an affableAÿ police veteran with nearly 30 years of experience, made no bones about his lack of education.Aÿ

He wanted to set an example, though, and made earning his bachelor's degree, and eventually his master's, a priority. Wilder also encouraged him, telling him the day he was hired that “you're going to get your degree,” according to the Times-Dispatch.
Too often the demands of the job got in the way. Monroe had been taking classes online at the University of Phoenix because it was more flexible with his work schedule, he told Style in 2004. “It's important to me personally,” he said of his education. “I have made a commitment to my kids.” He had two children in college at the time, one at Elon University and the other at Georgia Tech. “The bet is I will finish before the last one graduates,” Monroe said then, cracking a smile.

Monroe's goal idled until 2006, when he began talking to Robyn Lacks, director of the VCU Public Safety Institute, about enrolling at the university.

Lacks contacted Holsworth, who as dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, oversaw the criminal justice program. Holsworth liked the idea of Monroe getting his degree at the university, and relayed the message to his boss, Trani, who concurred that Monroe donning a black-and-gold tassel was a “great idea.”

From there, the story gets hazy. Monroe enrolled in the school's interdisciplinary studies program, which is part of the University College, under former dean Steingass, in January 2007. He took two classes that semester, and by spring plans were under way to see Monroe walk during the May commencement ceremonies.

But there was a hitch. Linda Spinelli, Monroe's assigned adviser in the University College, flagged the application as insufficient. Two courses at the university, a total of six credits, fell unquestionably short of the 30-credit requirement. Monroe had enough overall credits, just not enough of them at the Richmond university.

The soap opera that transpired after Spinelli red-flagged Monroe's degree left the school's internal investigators and the JLARC team befuddled. Spinelli refused to sign off on Monroe's application, forcing Steingass to approve it. Steingass told the Times-Dispatch that Holsworth informed him that Trani's office was “very interested” in Monroe getting his degree from VCU, and he felt pressured to overlook the credit requirements. Spinelli says Steingass pressured her to do the same. Holsworth has denied pressuring anyone, and Trani maintains that his enthusiasm for the idea — that Monroe graduate from VCU — was simply misinterpreted.

Meanwhile, Monroe says he didn't know about the graduation requirement. It's important to note that this isn't a contested fact. Spinelli told investigators with the university and JLARC, as well as the Times-Dispatch, that she never contacted Monroe to discuss his lack of graduation credits.

In a recent interview with Style, Monroe says he felt like he became the scapegoat. He says he was in no rush to graduate that May, and if anyone at the university had “even uttered those words” that he needed more credits he would have simply taken more classes. After getting his bachelor's, Monroe notes, he began working on his graduate degree at VCU and has since earned an additional 18 credits.

“Again, I should have known. But when you have advisers at the university, why would I challenge them?” Monroe posits. “Everything got pushed back to me.”Aÿ

The investigative notes of the internal investigation at the public university haven't been released to the public, and the reports issued by both the university board and legislative commission found no hard evidence of pressure from the top. VCU indirectly implicated Holsworth and Steingass by asking for their resignations, but didn't offer any evidence that Spinelli was pressured to approve the degree application.

The JLARC review was similarly inconclusive. Its investigators confirmed that Steingass' signature was on Monroe's degree application, but Steingass declined to be interviewed by JLARC.

“Steingass indicated he never saw the student records,” says Phil Leone, JLARC's director, adding that Steingass agreed only to answer limited questions via e-mail, but his answers were inconsistent. “He insisted he wasn't involved in this.”

But he signed the application, Leone says. After an investigation that lasted 20 days, Leone says his team was left “perplexed” with a puzzling set of interviews and evidence that simply didn't add up.

“To this day, I still don't know what the motivation was,” Leone says. “Was there an invisible hand guiding this all along? There's no evidence of that.”

The VCU and JLARC investigations cleared Monroe of any wrongdoing and concluded he could keep the degree. It also wasn't a recurring problem at the university. After reviewing 15,000 degree applications, investigators concluded that Monroe's was the only one that violated the school's credit requirements.

Monroe says he's still considering whether to give back the degree, but won't make a decision simply to satisfy VCU or the General Assembly commission that publicly called for the university to revoke the degree.

“Come rain or shine or whatever,” he says, “anything I do will be done for Rodney Monroe and not to satisfy any one entity.”

Despite the haze that hangs over the case, two things were clearly established: Monroe didn't have the required credits to graduate, and he received preferential treatment whether he knew it or not. And none of it would have come to light had Harry Potter remained silent.

Harry Potter remains a subject of controversy. His e-mails contained aggressive accusations about the people involved in awarding the degree — namely that Trani, Wilder and Holsworth, all close confidants, applied pressure to see Monroe graduate from VCU. He says portions of the narrative were based on things he'd heard from other administrators and remain unproven, perhaps his only regret. “I sent in the facts as I knew them,” he says. “It was in total good faith.”

Some of the administrator's most critical allegations have been refuted. He wrote that Mayor Wilder and Holsworth contacted Spinelli to pressure her to sign the degree application, an allegation that Spinelli has denied in interviews with CBS 6 and the Times-Dispatch. (Style was unable to reach Spinelli for comment.) She also denied that Steingass informed her that Trani wanted this to happen.

Harry Potter also became the subject of intense repudiation by Holsworth, who asked Harold E. Greer, the project leader in the JLARC review, to investigate the e-mailer. “One of the challenges with Holsworth was he didn't reveal a lot,” Greer says of his interview with the former dean, which lasted nearly two hours. “In the interview, he went into denial mode.”

Harry Potter says his job hasn't been threatened, and he hasn't received anything resembling personal threats from anyone at VCU. He also says he didn't send Monroe's graduation transcript to CBS 6 reporter Holmberg, as some have alleged. Holmberg says the transcript was delivered to the station in an unsigned envelope.

Harry Potter, who hired a lawyer, says he doesn't understand why some are attacking him, questioning his motives. In an anonymous e-mail sent to Style in October, Harry Potter is accused of having unconventional sexual proclivities, for example. “Why should anyone come after me?” he says. “For what?”

Indeed, most whistle-blowers face some sort of retribution, and often wind up unemployed with their reputations smeared, says Andrew C. Wicks, co-director of the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

“Typically whistle-blowers don't get rich, don't get famous and don't get any love. In many cases they get blackballed,” Wicks says. “Most of the time whistle-blowers are not embraced, even if what they say is true.”

The key question is whether outing Monroe's degree in public truly was Harry Potter's last and only option, Wicks says. “If it was not in the best interest of VCU, then he should have said something internally first,” he says, unless there was good reason to think doing so would result in “severe consequences.” Harry Potter says he didn't think going up the chain of command at the university was an option, considering how Spinelli refused to sign the degree for essentially the same reasons but was overruled.

All of that points to questions of leadership. While documented cases of direct intimidation by the VCU president are few and far between, longtime faculty members say that during his 18 years Trani has created an atmosphere of unquestioned authority at the university. It's an authority that stretched into the corporate community, and for the last four years, to Mayor Wilder's office at City Hall.

Trani may not have pulled the trigger, Wicks says, but he needs to take responsibility for the culture he helped create. In his only public statement addressing the degree scandal, Trani expressed regret that this “happened on my watch,” but limited his culpability to administrators misinterpreting his enthusiasm.

“While I am satisfied that the investigation found no involvement on my part,” Trani wrote, “I am also now more aware than ever that an enthusiastic, energetic President with lots of ideas may, however inadvertently, impact the behavior of others.”

Wicks, however, says it doesn't go far enough.

“This is a classic case of power and responsibility,” Wicks says, adding that the idea that such an egregious case of rule-bending was a matter of misinterpreted enthusiasm simply doesn't make sense. “That just doesn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny. Somebody somewhere gave this guy pretty special favors. Somehow that gap [in credit requirements] was overcome. Somebody somewhere, and I'm assuming someone pretty powerful … was bending the rules.”

To get caught up in the months-long soap opera that tainted Trani's legacy and followed Monroe to Charlotte would be missing the point. It's that VCU and its many denizens, and the greater Richmond community, responded in force to the degree scandal. One person simply decided that the integrity of the university was more important than protecting the reputations of a few powerful people.

It's ironic, perhaps, that degree scandal came at the expense of Wilder and his most important achievement in his four years in office: the hiring of Monroe and the subsequent drop in violent crime. It was Wilder, after all, who swooped into office promising to bring accountability to the city's leadership and to open up a city government long run by the corporate power brokers on Trani's speed dial. (All the while, Wilder continued to collect a paycheck as a professor at VCU.)

In the end, says longtime VCU political science professor Nelson Wikstrom, the anonymous tipster undressed “a closed power structure in Richmond. When you do enter that, you do sacrifice some of your own decision-making.” The whole ordeal only emphasized the need for VCU, and the city, to open itself up, Wikstrom says.

“We need to have a much more open form of government,” he says.

For all the aftermath, Harry Potter says he's “largely at peace” with the results of the two investigations. But it could have gone further. Holsworth and Steingass resigned, but Monroe was allowed to keep his degree. And Trani simply retired a few months earlier than expected. Wilder, for his part, announced the morning after Monroe took the Charlotte job that he wouldn't seek a second term as mayor.

The real test, Wicks says, is yet to come.

“This is not just a story about VCU, but it's a story about Richmond. I think when you look at society we spend an inordinate amount of time letting things go. Somebody stood up and said, ‘No, this isn’t going to happen,'” Wicks says. “And I think in this case that is good thing.” S


Previous Recipients

Rodney D. Monroe (2007)
Richmond police chief

The Harvey Family (2006)*
Bryan, Kathryn, Stella and Ruby

L. Douglas Wilder (2005)
Mayor of Richmond

Jennie Knapp Dotts (2004)

The Young Black Male (2003)
Searching for hope

John W. Bates III (2002)
Real-estate attorney, downtown deal-maker

Gilbert M. Rosenthal (2001)

James W. Dunn (2000)
Executive director,
Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce

Jerry A. Oliver (1999)
Richmond police chief

Eugene P. Trani (1998)
President, Virginia Commonwealth University

Harold M. Marsh Sr. (1997)*
Attorney and substitute judge

Paul DiPasquale and Tom Chewning (1996)
Artist, fundraiser, Arthur Ashe monument

MCV Hospitals (1995)

James and Robert Ukrop (1994)
Grocery magnates and community leaders

Nina Abady (1993)*
Director, Downtown Presents

Arthur Ashe (1992)
Humanitarian and tennis great

Marty Tapscott (1991)
New chief of police

Mary Tyler Cheek McClenahan (1990)
Civic leader

L. Douglas Wilder (1989)
Former governor and lieutenant governor

Barbara Grey (1988)
Fox School principal

Richmond Bureau of Police (1987)

Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. (1986)
U.S. District judge

L. Douglas Wilder (1985)
Former governor and lieutenant governor

* awarded posthumously

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