While many law schools across the country have been wrestling with the twin curses of declining enrollment and busted budgets, it looked like 2017 could bring a welcome dose of relief to the University of Minnesota Law School.
That happened on Feb. 6, when the law school revealed that it had secured the largest single charitable donation in its 129-year history — a $25 million gift to the school’s much-lauded immigrant- and refugee-focused legal clinic, the Center for New Americans.
The newsworthiness of the announcement was maximized by the timing. The Trump administration had just rolled out its controversial and ill-fated travel ban.
And then the other shoe dropped. In less than one month’s span, two longtime professors at the law school were charged with serious crimes.
On Feb. 22, students were informed of the first arrest by Dean Garry Jenkins, who sent out an obliquely worded email announcing that a law school faculty member had been arrested on “very serious” charges.
Jenkins cautioned students and colleagues not to jump to conclusions, saying: “As a community of lawyers and lawyers in training, we do not pre-judge allegations or outcomes.”
The missive did not identify the faculty member by name. But that didn’t matter. By then Francesco Parisi’s name and mugshot were already everywhere — on the front page of the Star Tribune, atop the local newscasts and featured prominently on many national legal blogs.
The allegations laid out in the criminal complaint — a PDF of which the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office posted online — were jaw-dropping.
Supposedly, the Italian-born legal academic had not only raped a former lover but he also did so while she was suffering a stress-induced epileptic seizure. The woman claimed to have been injured so badly that she had to undergo colon surgery and suffered three broken teeth. According to the complaint, Parisi later tried to run the woman down with his car.
There were also red flags.
The alleged rape had occurred two years before Parisi’s arrest, yet his accuser made no mention of the assault when she took out a restraining order against him in the immediate aftermath of the alleged assault. And that trip to court, as it turned out, occurred against the backdrop of a bruising legal fight between Parisi and his accuser over a condominium sale. Over the course of the litigation, the woman burned through multiple lawyers and, at each turn, came out on the losing end.
Parisi spent nearly three weeks behind bars, unable to come up with a $500,000 bond.
Then, just a few days after the prominent criminal defense attorney Michael Colich filed notice of representation, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office issued a terse press release announcing that it was dropping the charges — first-degree criminal sexual conduct, felony stalking — “in the interest of justice.”
The press release stated that investigators were unable to confirm certain unspecified details of the woman’s story and that there would be no further comment.
In an email to law school faculty and students, Dean Jenkins did have a comment. He wrote that he looked forward to Parisi’s return to the classroom in the fall and thanked the law school community “for upholding the values of our profession by withholding judgment and permitting the judicial process to run its course.”
In a telephone interview, John Braun, Parisi’s civil attorney (and one of the named defendants in the accuser’s lawsuit over the condo sale), said the university deserved credit for its handling of the situation.
“They recalled their training vis-a-vis the presumption of innocence,” Braun said. “The dean was circumspect and he didn’t rush to judgment, which was the right thing to do.”
But in Braun’s view, none of that would have been necessary if prosecutors and the Minneapolis Police Department had done their due diligence.
For one, Braun says, the first police investigator who was asked to look into the alleged rape closed the case after concluding that the accuser was less interested in pursuing criminal charges when she learned the investigator wouldn’t assist her in the property fight.
On top of that, according to Braun, Sgt. Ron Stenerson — the Minneapolis police investigator who reopened the case and signed the probable cause complaint — evidently never reviewed the woman’s medical records. If he had, Braun said, he would have known that those records contradicted her story about the injuries she said she suffered during the alleged assault.
Earlier this month, Parisi sued the woman in Hennepin County District Court, asserting claims for slander per se, slander and libel. According to the complaint, virtually everything she told police was a lie.
What are the odds for a defamation suit against a defendant who made statements to police but never actually went public with the accusation?
Several practitioners told Minnesota Lawyer that such claims are viable but that a plaintiff likely faces some high hurdles.
John Borger, a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels who specializes in First Amendment law, said the primary precedent in Minnesota comes from a 1994 Court of Appeals decision, Smits v. Wal-Mart. In a case of first impression, the court ruled that the qualified privilege for a defamatory statement to police can be defeated if the statement isn’t made in good faith or for good cause.
But according to Mark Anfinson, a media lawyer in Minneapolis, Parisi’s status as a professor at the University could also mean that he’ll be classified as a public official. “And for purposes of libel law, that means he has to prove actual malice, which imposes a much higher burden,” Anfinson said.
Marshall Tanick, the veteran litigator at Helmuth & Johnson, said that he’s had clients who wanted to sue accusers over false rape allegations but that such cases usually get dropped.
In part, Tanick said, that’s because many clients realize that a lawsuit will simply bring more unwanted attention, while, from the lawyer’s perspective, “the financials” aren’t conducive to litigation.
Still, such lawsuits aren’t nearly as rare or problematic as defamation claims against state actors.
“The bar is extraordinarily high for those,” Tanick said. “Prosecutors have virtually absolute immunity for actions taken in the course of their duties. It makes it virtually impossible to successfully pursue those sorts of cases.”
Braun, Parisi’s lawyer, said he’s aware of the obstacles. “Nine-and-a-half out of 10 times, they’re thrown out on summary judgement,” he said.
Nonetheless, Braun thinks Parisi just might have a viable defamation claim against the county and the Minneapolis Police Department under Section 1983 of the federal code.
“That’s one way to get around official immunity,” Braun said. “It requires a showing of malice or constructive malice to recover, but the ways of showing it can be pretty diverse.”
In Braun’s view, all the “extra junk” that was included in the criminal complaint against Parisi — that he was HIV positive, that he confessed to sleeping with students, that he confessed to plying a 14-year old girl with alcohol and sleeping with her — could prove key.
“These were damning and defamatory statements that didn’t have anything to do with the charges. They made my guy look bad but didn’t serve any other purpose,” Braun said.
So will Parisi actually pursue such a long-shot defamation suit? That depends on facts yet to be uncovered, according to Braun, who added a dig: “Unlike the Hennepin County Attorney, this office doesn’t like to bring a case without researching the facts.”
While the final chapter of Francesco Parisi’s ordeal has yet to be written, the legal saga for another longtime law school professor at the university — Edward S. Adams — is just getting underway.
Last week, Acting U.S. Attorney Gregory Brooker announced a federal indictment charging Adams with eight counts of mail fraud and six counts of wire fraud over the “brazen theft of millions of dollars” from Scio Diamond Corporation, a company that specializes in manufacturing lab-grown diamonds.
Adams’ crimes, Brooker said, are “compounded by the fact that he holds positions of public trust as an attorney and law school faculty member.”
According to the indictment, Adam’s systematic embezzlement pushed the company to the brink of insolvency, so Adams — in an effort to conceal losses — persuaded investors to convert their stock into a new company, which he then proceeded to loot.
Adams, who has yet to enter a plea, is scheduled to be arraigned on Friday.
News of the indictment prompted Dean Jenkins to send out another mass email to faculty and students at the university.
“I know you’ve heard this from me before, but it is worth repeating, in these situations it is vitally important that we respect both judicial and university processes,” Jenkins wrote in a reprise of the sentiment he expressed in the wake of Parisi’s arrest.
According to the email, Adams “has decided to take a leave from his teaching responsibilities, effective immediately” so he can devote his energies to mounting a vigorous defense.
While the indictment may have come as a shock to some on campus, the financial press had been reporting for several years on a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and civil litigation related to Adams’ work at a Scio.
Last year, just as the statute of limitations was about to expire, Adams filed a libel suit against the Star Tribune and reporter James Eli Shiffer over a 2014 story on a shareholder fight, which bore the headline “U law prof quits board after investor uprising.”
The suit survived a motion to dismiss in December but Hennepin County District Court Judge Thomas Sipkins limited the potential damages Adams could claim.
The judge left open a question likely to be litigated in Parisi’s defamation suit: For purposes of Minnesota law, is a law school professor a public official?