If yesterday was an emotional sob fest, Wednesday’s proceedings in UVA administrator Nicole Eramo’s defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone were much calmer, with the leading ladies in the suit—plaintiff Eramo and defendant/reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely—both taking the stand and both sparring with opposing counsel.
It was not without emotion, however. At the lunchtime recess outside the courthouse, Eramo “was accosted by a woman who called her a ‘rape apologist,’” said Eramo’s attorney Libby Locke, an incident the lawyer says proves the ongoing damage to her client’s reputation from the November 2014 Rolling Stone article, damage for which Eramo is suing for nearly $8 million.
And in a bombshell request, Locke attempted to enter a video in which Erdely told students at her University of Pennsylvania alma mater that she’d made mistakes while a student reporter, which Locke described as plagiarizing material for an interview that never happened with folk singer Michelle Shocked and making dubious attributions.
Judge Glen Conrad will be mulling over how pertinent that is to the case and whether to admit the video. “I’m a little bit disappointed this is coming up so late, on the third day of trial,” he said.
The day began with Rolling Stone attorney Elizabeth McNamara’s cross examination of Eramo, questioning how she’d handled the report made by Jackie, the alleged gang rape victim in the Rolling Stone story.
Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed seven men attacked her, was already on UVA’s radar before Erdely appeared on the scene after Jackie said she’d met two other women who had similar experiences there, according to Eramo’s testimony.
“Under Title IX, it’s required the university undertake an investigation,” said McNamara, who asked Eramo if the campus was warned about the alleged gang rape.
“It was not my purview to send warnings,” replied Eramo, who also noted that while Jackie’s assault had taken place September 28, 2012, she didn’t report it until many months later and it wasn’t until May 2014 that she said there were other victims.
Eramo reported to her boss, Dean Allen Groves, in a May 13, 2014, summary that Jackie said “several of them forced her to give them oral sex.” Eramo testified that she met with a national Phi Kappa Psi representative in September 2014 about a “potential rape at the chapter.”
The fraternity’s investigation resulted in no brothers stepping forward with additional information, Eramo said, admitting she was frustrated by the response. At the same time, as word of the upcoming Rolling Stone article spread, Phi Kappa Psi hired local public relations practitioner Pam Fitzgerald in October 2014 to handle fallout from the story, according to testimony.
“…It seems the fraternity is planning to throw me totally under the bus,” Eramo said in a November 14, 2014, text.
Eramo seemed in good spirits early in day, responding to McNamara’s questions with, “Yes ma’am,” and smiling from the witness box. But as the questioning continued, the jovial banter with McNamara dissipated.
And then McNamara played Eramo’s September 2014 WUVA interview, in which she’s questioned about the fact that while UVA expels students for cheating, it’s never expelled anyone for sexual assault.
Eramo’s testy response to student interviewer Catherine Valentine—”I think I’ve answered your question—became the basis for the Office of Civil Rights September 21, 2015, report that statements from Eramo, the chair of the Sexual Misconduct Board, “constituted the basis for a hostile environment” for the handling of sexual assault at UVA.
The testimony also indicated Eramo had been eager to talk to Erdely for the Rolling Stone article, and when Vice President of Student Affairs Pat Lampkin “suggested I not be the institutional voice on this,” said Eramo, she wrote in an e-mail to Lampkin and the student affairs hierarchy, “I’m afraid it may look like we are trying to hide something for me not to speak with her.”
McNamara guided Eramo through the article, pointing out all the times Erdely noted Eramo was beloved by the survivors.
The attorney also tallied the apologies Rolling Stone made for its major journalistic gaffe. Eramo was not swayed by the four apologies. “I don’t believe it was sincere,” she said, because Rolling Stone, while admitting error in its Jackie account, still stood by its reporting on Eramo.
In a final effort to minimize the harm Eramo suffered from the story, McNamara introduced a letter about a salary increase to $110,000 Eramo got in August 2015, and Eramo testified she’s now making $113,000. She was never disciplined or reprimanded and she received letters of praise from her bosses, including a handwritten note from UVA President Teresa Sullivan, reminded the attorney.
McNamara also pointed out that while Eramo held the title of deputy Title IX coordinator for students, she called Jackie a “serial fabulist.”
“Yes,” said Eramo.
Eramo read in its entirety an April 2015 letter she sent to Rolling Stone about how it added “insult to injury” in its portrayal of her as an “unsympathetic and manipulative false friend” more interested in keeping UVA’s rape statistics low. The article, wrote Eramo, “deeply damaged me both personally and professionally.”
Her name and a Photoshopped picture “remain forever linked” to the article that damaged her reputation, she said.
Erdely’s appearance on the stand around 5pm—nine hours into the proceedings—perked up weary jurors and spectators.
Eramo attorney Locke wasted no time in presenting articles longtime journalist Erdely had written about sexual assault, and accused the reporter of being critical of medical licensing boards for failing to protect patients from convicted gynecologists, of juries that don’t convict date rapists, of the Catholic Church for covering up sex crimes and of the military for covering up sexual abuse.
“I take issue with how you’re characterizing my articles,” said Erdely.
“You can take issue,” replied Locke. “It’ll be up to the jury to decide.”
Included in the plaintiff’s massive exhibit stack is Erdely’s 430-page reporting file of the notes she took while interviewing. The notes, she explained, were not every word from an interview. “You’re trying to get the important things for the article, not necessarily a record for litigation,” said Erdely.
Locke hammered on the premise that Erdely all along was focused on “institutional indifference” in her story pitch and in interview requests for her article about rape culture on college campuses.
Referring to an e-mail Erdely sent to Eramo asking for an interview, said Locke, “You don’t tell Eramo your article is about institutional indifference.”
“My article is not about institutional indifference,” said Erdely.
The trial, which began Monday, is expected to last 12 days, with Erdely back on the stand Thursday.
C-VILLE’s coverage of the trial continues tomorrow.