Penn State

Beta Theta Pi says renting frat house is a tradition, not a new use

The Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi says renting its State College house is a tradition, not a new use that requires a permit change.
The Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi says renting its State College house is a tradition, not a new use that requires a permit change. Centre Daily Times, file

Is collecting money for spending a football weekend at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house really a new activity?

Depends on who you ask, and how you ask them.

The email that went out to fraternity alumni offering up the 20 bedrooms listed “rates” for different arrangements. On Friday, attorneys for Donald Abbey, the alumnus petitioning a judge to grant a preliminary injunction that would stop the practice, asked members of the housing authority about that in a hearing.

Bill Cassidy is president of the housing corporation, the alumni body that makes decisions about the house at 220 Burrowes St., where the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the fraternity lived until Penn State — and their own national organization — suspended them in February after the death of pledge Timothy Piazza following injuries sustained at a party. Penn State subsequently banned the fraternity in March.

The email about weekend stays came from Cassidy, but he said in court that the practice was nothing new, calling it a tradition.

Ed Butkovitz, one of Abbey’s lawyers, went back to the email, where Cassidy called the offer a “new option available” in one sentence and a “new benefit” in another. Cassidy called that relative to the house’s shuttered status.

So what about those rates? Cassidy called them “suggested donations.” The email, he said, was not to advertise the rooms and weekend functions so much as let existing members know the house was functional.

“You’re not coming back to a house that has no electricity, no running water, no beer, no food,” he said in court.

But Abbey’s concerns are that the use could lead to fines that get in the way of his own suit to recover the $8.5 million he says he provided the fraternity under a contract that guaranteed repayment if it stopped being a fraternity. To date, State College borough has issued four citations to the housing corporation since football season started. Two have been for changing the building’s use without following the required steps. Two others are for failure to have a licensed fire safety program.

Cassidy doesn’t believe the use has changed. He sees it as a fraternity house being used by fraternity members. However, when presented with the State College borough zoning definition of a fraternity house, including language about current students and recognition by the university, he admitted Alpha Upsilon did not meet the letter of that law.

A letter from the borough showed the fraternity was given until Oct. 16 to file change of use documents to come into compliance. Cassidy said that did not happen. He could not say why.

Even after hearing that, another alumnus, Sam Johnson, disagreed with the terminology, still maintaining the facility is a fraternity house. Read the definition again, he conceded. Johnson also denied knowledge that the fraternity was banned.

Johnson is the guy providing the beer, according to court testimony. While the food is being handled by a catering company with a menu and servers, the alcohol in the building is being purchased by the fraternity members. Cassidy said it was “sponsored” by Johnson as the house’s host. Johnson said he had a keg in the tap room and poured some wine.

That tap room is in the basement, the place where prosecutors say an intoxicated Piazza fell “hair first” down the stairs, sustaining a brain injury and a lacerated spleen that bled over the 12 hours between his first trip and the ambulance call for help. Piazza died a day later.

The money for the stays is supposed to go to the legal defense fund. Cassidy said the fraternity has paid about $135,000 in legal bills so far and has another $200,000 outstanding. About $5,000 has been collected by offering the rooms.

Judge Katherine Oliver did not rule on the motion for preliminary injunction, but did propose something close.

“What if I sign an order that they have to comply with the law?” she asked.

Abbey attorney Matt Haverstick agreed, saying that was all his client was asking. Alpha Upsilon’s attorneys asked for a directed verdict in the fraternity’s favor.

Oliver will review the filings and evidence in the case and issue an order at a later date.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce