As two University of Maryland student-athletes were investigated in an alleged sexual misconduct case last year, Athletic Director Kevin Anderson used athletic department funding to provide the players a legal defense, the university said in a statement Thursday.

According to three people familiar with the situation, the student-athletes were members of the school’s football team, a program that has come under scrutiny in recent months following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and accusations that it operates in a culture of abuse and fear. The sexual misconduct allegation predates the recent events.

The school said the university president’s office learned that Anderson hired an attorney for the players only when the school received an invoice and that Anderson failed to follow the university’s instructions to sever ties with the attorney after being instructed to do so. Anderson’s actions showed “a serious lack of judgment in a sexual misconduct case, given the university’s commitment to a fair and impartial handling of all such matters,” a spokesman said Thursday.

Reached by phone Thursday night, Anderson said: “That report is inaccurate.”

Anderson went on sabbatical last October, shortly after the issue came to the attention of university administration, and resigned in April. His split with the school had never been explained in detail, and neither the sexual misconduct nor the school’s handling of the situation had been reported previously.

According to two people with knowledge of the situation, Maryland Coach DJ Durkin was the first to reach out to the Sports Group, a Montgomery, Ala.-based legal firm, under the direction of Anderson. Durkin is on administrative leave from the university and was not available to comment Thursday evening.

Don Jackson, a lawyer with the firm, confirmed in a telephone interview that the Sports Group provided legal services for Maryland athletes. In a Facebook post late Thursday night, he said initial reports on Anderson and his firm’s relationship with Maryland contained “numerous factual inaccuracies that were meant to paint Kevin Anderson in an unflattering and [I believe] false light.” He said he had “minimal interaction” with Anderson and that the former athletic director didn’t retain his firm, negotiate payment or authorize payment.

The university issued its statement in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, submitted by The Washington Post and the Diamondback, Maryland’s student newspaper, which first reported many details surrounding the matter on its website Thursday evening.

The school began investigating a sexual assault allegation involving two football players in June 2017, according to three people familiar with situation. Not only did the athletic department help finance their legal defense, but Anderson was not always cooperative and forthcoming with the investigation conducted by the school’s Title IX office, according to two people familiar with the situation. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

Investigators brought the matter to the president’s office, raising concerns about the athletics department’s actions, the two people said.

One person familiar with the situation said the athletic department made the investigation difficult at times — being unresponsive to requests, insisting on submitting irrelevant evidence, putting forth football teammates as witnesses.

After a hearing held by the school, one of the players was expelled, according to three people familiar with the case; the other was cleared of wrongdoing but also left the school. Citing federal privacy laws, the school does not confirm the outcomes of sexual misconduct cases.

The Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault unless they allow their names to be published.

According to the statement from the school, the administration learned on Aug. 29, 2017, that the athletic department had hired an attorney to represent the players. The school said Anderson did not follow proper protocols “requiring General Counsel to retain outside counsel.”

Maryland’s athletic department paid $15,000 to the Sports Group, according to a person familiar with the payment. Jackson declined to discuss any details of the case but said the group has represented Maryland in issues related to athlete eligibility for the past three years. Jackson was representing a Maryland basketball player in the summer of 2017 when he was approached to represent the two football players accused of sexual assault.

The money came from Anderson’s discretionary account with the University of Maryland College Park Foundation, which means the payment was funded by money donated by boosters, not public dollars.

While the school said the decision to hire the lawyer on behalf of the players showed a lack of judgment, a Maryland spokesman noted that NCAA rules “allow member institutions to pay for legal counsel for proceedings that might affect a student-athlete’s eligibility to participate in intercollegiate athletics.”

The case was handled by the school’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct and the Office of Student Conduct — “independently, impartially, and without favoritism,” a Maryland spokesman said in a statement. Legal representation is common on sexual misconduct hearings.

Catherine Carroll, the director of the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, did not respond to a request to comment Thursday night. She told the Diamondback this year that a university hiring a lawyer for one party but not another in a sexual misconduct case would be problematic for the school and could constitute an equity issue.

Athletic departments are supposed to maintain distance from sexual misconduct cases involving student-athletes. The NCAA’s executive committee passed a resolution in August 2014 requiring its members schools to “operate with but not manage, direct, control or interfere with college or university investigations into allegations of sexual violence ensuring that investigations involving student-athletes and athletic department staff are managed in the same manner as all other students and staff on campus.”

The school said Anderson’s decision to hire the Alabama firm was made without the knowledge of the president’s office, the school’s general counsel or Damon Evans, who was executive athletic director at the time and first flagged the payment.

“In response, the President’s Office immediately directed the then-Athletic Director to cut ties with the attorney,” the school said.

The school said the president’s office learned on Sept. 27, 2017 that Anderson had not severed ties with the attorney. The administration directed its general counsel to launch an immediate internal investigation “to determine why this had happened.”

A Maryland spokesman said, because it’s a personnel matter, the school could not release any details on the results of that investigation.

The school announced Anderson would go on a six-month sabbatical Oct. 16, with Evans serving as interim athletic director. In early May, less than a month after he resigned from Maryland, Anderson took over as interim athletic director at Cal State Northridge. Evans was tabbed as a candidate to take over as the permanent athletic director by that point and was hired June 25.

In an email to athletic department officials last fall, Anderson, 63, cited his work in monthly open forums with his athletes — which he created in 2016 to address social and political issues — as the reason for his sabbatical. Anderson, who earned a salary of $587,000 last year, reached a settlement with the university before his resignation in April, according to two people familiar with the negotiations.

A longtime polarizing figure in College Park, Anderson took over for Debbie Yow in 2010 after serving six years as athletic director at Army. During his tenure at Maryland, he made three coaching hires within revenue programs and oversaw the school’s transition to the Big Ten starting in 2012, a move that has helped bring new revenue streams to an athletic department that long has been plagued by financial struggles and was forced to drop seven varsity sports in 2012 to counteract a multimillion dollar deficit.

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