Saturday, January 8, 2022

In 'Pillow Talk' Conspiracy, Penn's Stonewall Cracks

Illustration: The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Ralph Cipriano

On Dec. 21st, Big Trial broke a story about an explosive lawsuit charging that top officials at the University of Pennsylvania had allegedly conspired with journalists at The Philadelphia Inquirer to smear a Penn grad student who had just won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of grad student Mackenzie Fierceton claims that Penn officials targeted her for retaliation after she became a key witness in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the university.

As part of the alleged conspiracy, the lawsuit claims, Penn officials conducted a "sham" investigation that forced the student to voluntarily give up her Rhodes scholarship, after Penn officials threatened to rescind the student's undergraduate degree and withhold her master's degree. On top of that, the lawsuit claims that Penn officials had threatened to send the student to jail for allegedly fraudulently representing herself in her application to become a Rhodes scholar.

In more than two weeks since that story was published, the public response of Penn and the Inquirer to the lawsuit has been crickets. None of the Penn officials nor the Inquirer journalists targeted in the lawsuit have responded to Big Trial's requests for comment. Neither has Inquirer CEO and Publisher Lisa Hughes. 

But stonewalling is harder to pull off in court. So last week Penn broke its official silence by filing an 80-page answer to the complaint that was mostly filed with denials. In its brief, Penn denied that it retaliated against Fierceton, or colluded with "co-conspirators" at the Inquirer to smear her.

Instead, Penn claimed that an internal investigation by the university, as well as the Rhodes Trust, had concluded that "Fierceton had not been truthful" about her background, and that's why the university had put her degrees on ice.

On Friday, the high-brow Chronicle of Higher Education weighed in on the fray with a long story about Penn's brutal inquisition of Fierceton entitled, "The Dredging." It's a story that will only serve to further fuel the battle that will be waged over Fierceton in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

Meanwhile, the Inquirer hasn't told its readers about the lawsuit that targets their top editor and a recently departed Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. How's that for transparency? Maybe if the Inquirer is brought into the lawsuit as a defendant, they'll finally have to say something. 

The lawsuits lists as defendants the university and its trustees, as well as three Penn officials: Beth Winkelstein, interim provost; Wendy White, senior vice president and general counsel; and Louisa Shepard, news officer for the Office of University Communications, none of whom could be reached for comment. 

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Dion Rassias of The Beasley Firm, claims that as part of the conspiracy to smear and retaliate against Fierceton, Louisa Shepard, Penn's news officer, leaked "false and baseless accusations" against Fierceton to her husband, Gabriel Escobar, editor and senior vice president of the Inquirer, as well as "presently unnamed co-conspirators at The Philadelphia Inquirer."

As a result of what the lawsuit describes as "orchestrated pillow talk" between Shepard and Escobar, the "conflict-laden editor" subsequently assigned Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Wendy Ruderman to conduct a year-long investigation of Fierceton, the purpose of which was to "dig up any dirt possible." 

The lawsuit claims that during her investigation, Ruderman, who did not respond to a request for comment, interviewed "anonymous unreliable sources" that included Fierceton's biological mother, a doctor in St. Louis who lost custody of Fierceton in high school after Missouri state officials determined that the mother had physically abused her daughter, sending her to a hospital for nearly a month.

But Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, the law firm defending Penn, had a decidedly different take on Fierceton -- namely that everything that happened is all the grad student's fault. 

"Mackenzie Fierceton was selected as a Rhodes Scholar because she offered an inspiring story -– an ambitious and driven student who succeeded in the face of extraordinary odds, having grown up in the State of Missouri’s foster-care system, 'bouncing' from one location to the next, the first in her family to attend college," Penn's legal brief states.

"That story unraveled after acquaintances from her hometown -- who knew Fierceton as Mackenzie Morrison, before she changed her name –- read about her selection as a Rhodes Scholar and wrote to Penn and the Rhodes Trust, saying that her claims of hardship were made up for personal gain. "

"After those who knew Fierceton raised questions about her story, it was investigated – - not just once, but several times, and not just by Penn faculty and staff, but also the Rhodes Trust," Penn's legal brief states.

"Those investigations revealed that for the first 17 years of her life, Fierceton was raised by her mother, Dr. Carrie Morrison, an accomplished physician. Fierceton grew up in a wealthy community and attended an elite private school in a St. Louis suburb," Penn's lawyers state. "She entered foster care only at the age of 17, after making a complaint of abuse against Dr. Morrison  –- a complaint that a court later found not to be credible."

"Every objective and careful reviewer of the facts in this case –- including the Rhodes Trust, Penn’s Office of Student Conduct, a faculty committee from Fierceton’s graduate school at Penn, and a hearing panel consisting of faculty and students from other Penn schools –- concluded that Fierceton had not been truthful," Penn's lawyers state.

In their brief, Penn's lawyers denied that university officials "conspired to take any actions against Fierceton and that it has any 'co-conspirators' who engaged in wrongful acts."

Regarding Louisa Shepard, Penn's news officer, "Penn admits that Ms. Shepard received an anonymous email describing how Fierceton had lied about substantial portions of her narrative, and that the article in The Philadelphia Inquirer was therefore inaccurate and misleading." 

The article was written by former Daily News and Inquirer staffer Ruderman, who was subsequently dispatched to St. Louis for two weeks to dig into Fierceton's background, and write a long expose that was never published.

In their response to the lawsuit, Penn's lawyers wrote, "Penn denies that it leaked any information about Fierceton to The Philadelphia Inquirer, whether through Ms. Shepard or otherwise."

"Penn denies that it engaged in a scheme to hurt, punish, or discredit Fierceton, that Louisa Shepard is a 'conflict-laden editor,' or that it engaged in any outrageous or inappropriate behavior toward Fierceton."

Attention, Penn defense lawyers -- the "conflict-laden editor" referred to in the lawsuit is not Shepard, but her husband, Gabriel Escobar, the top editor at the Inquirer. 

In their legal brief, Penn admits that after Fierceton wound up in the hospital for nearly a month after an altercation with her mother, the state of Missouri removed Fierceton from her mother's home and placed her in foster care. 

In their legal brief, Penn continued their attack on one of their own grad students by claiming she had misrepresented herself in her application for a Rhodes scholarship.

"Fierceton clearly benefitted from life in an upper-middle class environment," Penn's lawyers wrote. "She enjoyed horseback riding, family trips to the beach, school athletics, and extracurricular activities. was raised in the affluent St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Missouri, which, according to a 2019 Business Journal article, is the home of the 'richest zip code' in all of Missouri. 

"The median household income for Chesterfield, as reported in the article, was $160,354.24," Penn's lawyers wrote. "Fierceton attended a private elementary school, the Chesterfield Montessori School, and then The Whitfield School, a private college preparatory school nestled on a 26-acre campus in St. Louis, Missouri."

During their investigation of Fierceton, Penn's general counsel spoke to "Michael Hayes, the prosecutor in St. Louis who had charged Dr. Morrison with child abuse and neglect. Mr. Hayes did not mince words. He referred to the charge and arrest of Dr. Morrison as the 'biggest mistake of my career.' ” 

According to Penn's lawyers, prosecutor Hayes stated that "Fierceton’s mother. Dr. Morrison was a medical doctor of high standing in the community and had an unblemished public record. Although Fierceton had made a complaint to child services against her mother’s boyfriend, it had been dismissed due to lack of evidence."

"Second, based on Fierceton’s allegations that her mother was abusing prescription medication, a search warrant was issued," Penn's legal brief states. "No drugs were found, and nothing came of that false accusation. Mr. Hayes described the lead from Fierceton as a 'total dead end.' ”

"Third, Fierceton’s cousin, Colleen, who had lived with Fierceton and her mother for some time in their Chesterfield home, refuted what Fierceton had alleged," Penn's lawyers wrote. "She witnessed no abuse, whether physical or emotional. Colleen said it was possible that Fierceton had caused her own injuries."

"Finally, Mr. Hayes had learned that Fierceton had routinely been a domineering presence in her mother’s life," Penn's lawyers wrote. "Fierceton had regular temper tantrums, beyond the normal range for an adolescent. Mr. Hayes concluded that Fierceton’s accusations of abuse were fraudulent and manipulative."

In January 2020, the former Mackenzie Morrison decided to change her name, Penn's defense lawyers wrote. "She explained further that her new name 'reflects who I am broadly and specific to my identities as a queer, low-income, survivor, and former foster youth living with a disability and chronic illness.' "

Penn's lawyers also denied that the university's negligence was responsible for a hospital stay for Fierceton.

On January 29, 2020, Fierceton's lawsuit against Penn states, Fierceton, then an undergrad in the final semester of her senior year, "suffered a seizure" while attending a class on campus in the basement of the Caster Building at 3701 Locust Walk.

"Due to the inaccessibility of the Caster Building, and specifically its basement, and the Penn Defendants’ improper emergency protocol, it took more than an hour for emergency personnel to remove [Fierceton] from the building," the lawsuit states.

"This delay caused [Fierceton's] condition to further deteriorate, and as such, she was required to be admitted to the neurological intensive care unit for three days at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she spent a total of five days."

But in their legal brief, Penn also denies that "the Caster Building and its basement are inaccessible and that Penn lacks a proper emergency protocol." Penn also denied that its "conduct contributed to any purported delay of Fierceton’s removal from the Caster Building and that Fierceton’s condition deteriorated due to such purported delay." 

After Fierceton recovered, her lawsuit against the university states, she began to investigate whether the death of a classmate of hers, Cameron Driver, which had occurred 16 months prior to her seizure, was caused by the same issues that delayed her own medical treatment. 

Shortly before class began at 6:45 p.m. on September 11, 2018, according to Fierceton's lawsuit, Driver, a black 38-year-old graduate student, “suddenly and unexpectedly experienced what was described as ‘seizure like activity’ in connection with a cardiac arrest."

"Because there was no available landline in the classroom and cell phone service was 'inconsistent and/or non-existent' in the basement, Mr. Driver’s classmates were required to leave the classroom to call emergency responders," Fierceton's lawsuit states. 

“It was not until 7:43 p.m., nearly an hour after [Driver] experienced a medical emergency, that Philadelphia EMS dispatch received a 911 call," Fierceton's lawsuit states. "The students formed a human telephone chain from basement classroom A14 to the lobby, to relay information from the 911 dispatcher to [a professor] who was attempting to render aid to [Driver].”  

On February 24, 2020, Fierceton sent emails to Penn President Amy Gutmann and other senior administrators "with details of the failures displayed in both medical emergencies." Fierceton's activism resulted in student protests that ended when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

As part of her investigation, Fierceton "took measurements and photographs of the entrances and exit doors, stairwells, hallways and elevator in the Castor Building," the lawsuit states. Fierceton presented all of this information to Driver's widow, whom, Fierceton's lawsuit states, "was unaware of the true facts and circumstances surrounding her husband’s death, which had been concealed by the Penn Defendants."

On Aug. 18, 2020, a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Driver's family was subsequently filed against Penn. 

But in their legal brief, Penn denies any responsibility for the death of Driver.

"Penn denies that the Caster Building and its basement are inaccessible and that issues relating to access caused or contributed to Fierceton’s alleged injuries or the death of Cameron Driver," Penn's legal brief states.

"Penn admits that on or about September 11, 2018, Cameron Driver experienced a sudden medical emergency while attending class in the basement of the Caster Building," Penn's lawyers wrote. But, "It is denied that responders to the medical incident affecting Mr. Driver were not equipped to provide necessary or proper assistance."

"It is denied that there were structural defects in the Caster Building that caused or contributed to Mr. Driver’s medical condition."

In the Chronicle of Higher Education story, reporter Tom Bartlett dives into the incident that led the state of Missouri to remove Fierceton from her mother's home and place her in a foster home.

"What exactly occurred on the night of September 22, 2014, remains in dispute despite a police investigation and a court hearing," Bartlett wrote. "There were no witnesses, other than Fierceton and her mother."

"Fierceton testified in a 2019 court hearing that her mother pushed her down the stairs in their two-story house — about eight to ten carpeted steps — during an argument about her mother’s boyfriend," Bartlett wrote. "After she fell, Fierceton testified, her mother struck her multiple times in the face. The next thing she remembers, she says, is waking up in her bedroom. The following morning, Fierceton drove herself to school, collapsed in front of a teacher, and was taken to the hospital."

"Her mother’s version of what happened, and of their relationship, is entirely different," Bartlett wrote. 
"Morrison testified that she and her daughter were 'two peas in a pod' and did everything together. She also told the court that Fierceton was a difficult child, had long struggled with anxiety, and could be defiant."

"That night, according to Morrison, Fierceton told her she had gum in her hair and asked for help getting it out. They were on the stairs, she said, and while Morrison was trying to remove the gum, Fierceton jerked her head back, went down two or three steps, and then sat."

"At the hearing, Morrison was asked whether she had ever hit Fierceton or pushed her down the stairs. 
'No,' she answered."

"(Morrison, who declined an interview request, emailed the following statement: 'Mackenzie is deeply loved by her mom and family," Bartlett wrote. "Our greatest desire is that Mackenzie chooses to live a happy, healthy, honest, and productive life, using her extraordinary gifts for the highest good.' ”)

In an essay Fierceton wrote as part of her application for a Rhodes scholarship, she described the extent of her injuries from a fall down the stairs.

"Her 494-word essay opens with her lying in a hospital bed, a feeding tube in her mouth, her 'facial features so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart,' " Barlet wrote. "Her 'blonde hair is caked with dried blood.' Going to the bathroom requires an ''army of nurses,' and there are 'braces stabilizing most of my body.' ” 

" 'Every single part of my broken body hurts,' ” she writes. She doesn’t describe the incident that caused these injuries, but she does identify her alleged assailant. 'The one who almost killed me,' she writes. 'The one who is my mother. She broke me.' ”

When Beth Winkelstein, Penn's deputy provost questioned Fierceton, Fierceton claimed that her medical records would show that she had suffered broken ribs and facial injuries. But she had no broken bones.

"Several times Winkelstein asked what happened on the night she was injured," Bartlett wrote. "Through tears, Fierceton said finally: 'My mom tried to kill me.' ”

"After Fierceton was hospitalized, her mother, Carrie Morrison, was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse or neglect and one count of misdemeanor assault. Those charges were later dropped and her record was expunged," Bartlett wrote.

"The assistant prosecuting attorney handling the case, Michael Hayes, says he felt ethically obligated to drop the charges," Bartlett wrote.

The author quoted Hayes as saying, “My review of all of the available evidence did little to assuage certain doubts I had about the case/ The more I learned, the less certain I became about what really happened.” 

After he investigated the case, Bartlett concluded, "Several key facts are not in dispute: Fierceton did officially spend nearly a year in foster care and then continued to live with one of her foster families (most children placed in foster care remain there for one to two years, making her experience, in that respect, typical). She did bounce between foster families. She did spend roughly three weeks in the hospital, including in the pediatric intensive care unit. She did tell police and testify in court that her mother had abused her."

In the Chronicle story, Bartlett quotes two Penn political science professors who insist that Fierceton told the truth.

“The worst you can say about her is that retrospectively she exaggerated her injuries,” Ann Norton, one of Fierceton's academic advisors, told Bartlett. “Injuries that nevertheless kept her in the hospital for a long time and resulted in her being placed in foster care.”

Rogers Smith, who also served as Fierceton's advisor is another defender. 

According to Smith, Penn “treated her brutally, with a harsh, invasive interrogation followed by bullying and threats and a contrived process that included an unjustly withheld degree.” 

The whole thing is “Kafkaesque,” Smith told Bartlett.

And finally, Bartlett quotes Fierceton herself about her ordeal.

“It’s horrible to be disbelieved over and over and over again by the people with the most power in the institution,” Fierceton told Bartlett. “Being told that you are wrong about the experience you know, one-hundred percent for fact, and that you spent the majority of your childhood saying wasn’t happening because you felt so ashamed and worthless . . .  and then to finally be able to tell the truth — to have that thrown back in your face has felt like the most severe kind of gaslighting that is possible.” 

"Asked what Penn should have done when it received an anonymous email accusing her of fabricating her life story," Bartlett concludes, "Fierceton has a ready answer: 'Believed me.' ”


  1. (Dramatization: May not have happened.)
    Submitted to and accepted by Saturday Night Live, before Loren Michael got the President Metal of Hinor. The squashed.
    Scene 1: "Exit Stage Left! The Amy and David Road Show"
    Time Januar 31st, 2021, 7:30 AM. Biden's billionaire handlers, oligarchs who are really incharge, call an 'early lid'. After taking the white House, Biden takes a nap.

    Fake CGI White House Oval Office (the one the Biden Gerentology and Memory Care Team created to make Joe comfortable, help him appear fit.)
    Deafening phones rings piercing Biden's confused slumber. This special, dedicated hot line phone done up in University of Pennsylvania colors, with slave-owning, land stealing Ben Franklin embossed on the receiver:

    A confused, disoriented Biden picks up the phone.

    Biden after phlegmy coughs, mouth noises: "Wǎn shàng hǎo! Mommy?" (or "good evening", in Chinese ".

    On the other line, we hear Amy and David, panicked and excited:
    "Guten Morgen, Herr führer! Jiggs up!", Amy squeals.
    "David and me gots to get outta town. For realsies though this time!"

    Biden : "Ames! Davey! How're you doing?! Shame about all those dead murdered Blacks in Philadelphia. Tragic. I'm deeply saddened, and ah out raged....i think that's what they tell me to say about dead blacks...or something...prayers and kisses? Wishes?...."

    Amy and David: "Silence! We don't have time for that now, you dimwitted Alta Kocker! There is only one dead Black i needs to be concerned wit. We tried to cover it up, hide it all, but a no-go. Chase is doing what he can, but we need to flee to safety, where we cant be get at. We need to get out of town, out of the country! It's all goin sideways!"

    Biden: "I'll expedite your ambassadorships to Germania and Canada. Yeah. Yeah. That'll work. Call Mike Rubin, get him to send his helicopter, if Jim Kenney's not using it, and get to Dulles, as fast as you can. I'll have a plane waiting for you."
    Amy: Great!
    Amy to David: "Get all that cash we were supposed to give to PILOT,and stuff it into diplomatic courier GO bags! I don't want use our off shore bitcoins, if we can help it. Now MOVE!"

    More to come!

    1. Wow.
      Nicely done. Timely and relevant.

    2. You should have ended with "Cue The Benny Hill Show music!"

  2. I'm no fan of the Inquirer, but "Fierceton" isn't the first person in her family to attend college.

    1. I suspect the sloppy, shallow, grossly incompetent investigation conducted by the Inquirer contributed to the mess.
      The fact that she was not the first in her family was known at the time. This information was readily available, and the Inquirer knew it and chose to omit it.
      "The Inquirer: Yawning caverns of omissions!"

      The Inquirer only chose to violently, maliciously target the poor queer, battered, foster care child AFTER she spoke truth to power to hold Penn accountable. She will be silenced!

      No one gets away unscathed by Penn.

      Donald Trump went there.
      Nuff said.

    2. She never claimed to be, besides that, Penn has a very broad definition of "first gen" and she actually meets those standards.

  3. This Just In! Breaking News!

    Inquirer once again fails to locally staff Inquirer reporters to report ugly, racist, elitist, unfair investigations, which provide insight on just how Penn (or as I like to call it Trump University) operates. The Inquirer does the same with Comcast, other local favored companies, institutions.

    Guttman and Trump share a great deal in common. Fortunately, Guttman has fled the hemisphere.

    The Inquirer bought, copied, pasted, this article from Bloomberg, and will subsequently ignore it after shallow, brief reporting. Do not look for an editorial on this:

    Yale, MIT, other colleges sued for colluding to hold down financial aid packages
    More than a dozen top U.S. colleges including Penn were sued for allegedly conspiring to manipulate the admissions system to hold down financial aid for students and benefit wealthy applicants.
    More than a dozen top U.S. colleges including The University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Columbia were sued for allegedly conspiring to manipulate the admissions system to hold down financial aid for students and benefit wealthy applicants.


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