St. Joseph’s University is paying for the legal defense for at least four alumnae, who, along with the university, are being sued by a former math professor dismissed over a Twitter dispute, according to a claim in a recent legal filing.
Although it is not illegal for a third party to pay for the legal defense of the former students, such a move does come with ethical questions.
Greg Manco had been a visiting professor in math and an unpaid assistant baseball coach at St. Joe’s for 14 years when he became the focus of a Twitter controversy in February 2021. After an investigation that ran the remainder of the Spring semester, St. Joe’s said it had “insufficient evidence” that Manco had acted inappropriately.
Weeks later, however, the university did not renew his contract as visiting professor, blaming the move on budgetary constraints. Manco felt forced to take an adjunct contract which greatly reduced his pay and benefits.
Manco sued in January, alleging that the university violated its contract, and further alleged the university conspired with one graduate to solicit and collect damaging information against him in violation of university policies.
Manco and his attorney, Joseph Toddy, say in a proposed amended filing that by covering the legal fees for all defendants, St. Joe’s creates ongoing evidence of the conspiracy.
Setting aside the conspiracy claim, the new filing does not provide any documentary proof of St. Joe’s making the legal payments for the defense of others, but Toddy says he’s on solid ground.
“I spoke with counsel for another ex-student who is not being provided with a defense [by St. Joe’s], who was upset by that,” Toddy told Broad + Liberty.
In addition, Toddy says there are rules in federal court cases by which provably false claims can be stricken from the record, and that if the claim of the legal payments were untrue, new legal filings to that regard would already be underway.
“We’ve made that claim and it has been unrefuted by St. Joe’s,” Toddy added.
When contacted for comment, St. Joe’s spokeswoman Gail Benner said, “The matter is before the court and we will respond in that forum.” A request for comment to the four alumnae through their attorneys was not returned. The attorneys also did not provide comment.
The entire controversy traces to a tweet Manco sent from a private account he had run for years, @SouthJerzGiants. Manco largely kept the account anonymous and unaffiliated with the university, although on a small number of occasions identified himself by name or as a professor at St. Joes.
“Suppose your great-great-grandfather murdered someone,” he tweeted on Feb. 17, 2021. “The victim’s great-great-grandson knocks on your door, shows you the newspaper clipping from 1905, and demands compensation from you. Your response?”
“Now get this racist reparation bulls*** out of your head for good,” he concluded. The tweet linked to an Associated Press story reporting that the Biden administration was “giving its support to studying reparations for Black Americans for slavery and discrimination.”
Manco says two alumnae, Hadassah Colbert and Karliegh Lopez, began a campaign on social media to drum up support against him, highlighting the tweet and tagging the university on posts on Twitter and Instagram.
In the original lawsuit filed in January, Manco said Colbert had been a student of his in 2017, and that she received an “F” grade in his class.
The university reacted to this claim by firing Manco from his adjunct position, saying he had violated federal student privacy laws by divulging the grade of a former student.
That final firing led Manco and his legal team to ask the court to file an amended complaint, alleging that the university was using the student privacy law as a “pretext” to do what they had wanted to do all along: dismiss him completely.
In the original complaint, Manco claimed that Colbert had actually met with university administrators to complain about him and his Twitter account in January. He says they urged her to begin building out a larger case against him. This is where Manco alleges a conspiracy, pointing to the university handbook that employees are supposed to be notified when investigations have been launched against them.
According to Toddy, the four alumnae who are being defended by St. Joe’s backing include Colbert and Lopez, along with Kiernan Loue and Erin Fahey. In the complaint, Manco claims those last two individuals submitted false reports about him to the university or made false claims about him on social media.
Lawyers for the defendants, writing in legal filings, have alleged however that Manco has invited the controversy.
“Manco’s goal, of course, is to chill speech contrary to his beliefs and to use this Court as a platform for self-aggrandizement,” the lawyers for the four alumnae wrote in a filing. “In fact, it is noteworthy that, to date, Manco has spoken on talk shows, spoken with news outlets, and has published his own articles about the allegations in this litigation. Manco’s agenda, however, is not an appropriate use of the judicial system and our judicial resources.”
Payment of legal fees by outside sources can create enough of an ethical complication that entities like the American Bar Association frequently advise attorneys how best to handle such situations. The ABA cautions that having one party pay for another’s legal representation runs the risk of an “actual or potential conflicts of interest.”
As for a recent example of how third-party payments for legal help can create thorny issues, one must look no further than the January 6 hearings on Capitol Hill.
Cassidy Hutchinson, the former top aide to President Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, was originally having her legal assistance paid for by one of Trump’s political organizations.
Her testimony to the committee became more eye-opening, but only after she fired a lawyer recommended to her by the Trump team.
“Under the representation of the new lawyer, Jody Hunt, Ms. Hutchinson sat for a fourth interview with the committee in which she divulged more revelations and agreed to come forward publicly to testify to them,” the New York Times reported.
At the same time, the Times report also noted there are instances in which third-party payment of legal fees seems like good manners. The report pointed to those staffers and aides who were drawn into legal quagmires surrounding Bill Clinton’s presidency, “and were dismayed when a legal-defense fund set up by Mr. Clinton’s allies to help the first family pay its multimillion-dollar legal debts did not help them.”
One of the most famous incidents of third-party legal payment dates to 2016, when Terry Bollea, best know as the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, bankrupted the website Gawker for releasing a sex tape that included Bollea.
Bollea’s legal expenses in pursuing Gawker, however, were paid by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who had harbored a grudge against the website for outing him as gay years before. That instance was also notably different in that Thiel was underwriting a plaintiff’s legal fees, not the legal fees of a defendant.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports