Penn State

Beta Theta Pi wants lawsuit against them put on hold

Penn State President Eric Barron finds details heart-wrenching and incomprehensible

Penn State President Eric Barron speaks to the media in February 2018 about the grand jury investigation into the death of Timothy Piazza
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Penn State President Eric Barron speaks to the media in February 2018 about the grand jury investigation into the death of Timothy Piazza

Beta Theta Pi wants the Centre County Court of Common Pleas to put off a civil suit until it’s done with criminal prosecution.

On Monday, the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the fraternity filed two court documents, in which fraternity member and benefactor Donald Abbey is suing for the return of millions of dollars he says he provided, starting in 2004, to rebuild the house and the chapter under the provision the Penn State fraternity remain a Beta Theta Pi chapter.

Just a few years later, the university permanently banned the chapter in the wake of the death of Timothy Piazza, 19, a sophomore pledge who died following a fall at a pledge party. The chapter and 26 members are facing criminal charges.

In December, Abbey’s attorneys filed a motion to compel the fraternity to give full responses to a list of questions and to answer requests to produce documents.

One of the filings on Monday was a response in opposition to that motion.

According to the court papers, some of that information, including footage from the security cameras at the 221 Burrowes Road fraternity house, disciplinary files on the members, and documentation of disciplinary action, could cause problems with the defense.

“... The material sought through Abbey’s discovery would be highly prejudicial to the criminal defendants if leaked to the media or others and would further endanger their right to a fair and unbiased jury,” attorney Michael Leahey wrote in his filing.

That is not a new argument for Abbey’s attorney, Matthew Haverstick, to hear. In 2014, it was a repeated refrain from the NCAA as he sued the college sports organization for state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, over the fine levied against Penn State as discipline for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The documents in that case revealed a number of private communications until the case was settled in January 2015.

But while three criminal cases were still pending during that process, none of the attorneys were the same. This time, Leahey and Mark Bernlohr represent the chapter in both the criminal and civil suit, and many of the parties overlap.

Leahey requested a protective order that would keep the information secret.

“Abbey should not be permitted to use the pending civil matter ... to pervert the pending criminal matters and disseminate highly confidential information to the general public and third parties,” he wrote.

He also cited the fact that the case was originally brought by former district attorney Stacy Parks Miller, and that newly seated DA Bernie Cantorna has recused himself, noting “because there is currently no clear prosecuting authority, disclosure of potential grand jury material must be stayed until after a prosecuting authority can weigh in on this matter.”

But on Monday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro accepted the case for prosecution by his office.

The second document filed by Leahey was a motion to stay the civil case entirely until the criminal matter is concluded.

That shouldn’t be a problem, Leahey wrote, as “it is anticipated the criminal trial will not linger for an extended period of time.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce