Former USF dean Abdul Rao, accused in bike theft, faces no criminal charge

TAMPA — It seemed so ridiculous. Why would a top university administrator who made $384,280 a year steal a graduate student's bike?

Abdul Rao, who for three years held a slew of titles at the University of South Florida, including senior associate vice president of USF Health, lost his job over the flap. The story made radio talk show hosts gawk, peers chuckle and bloggers rant.

But four months after a YouTube video aired showing Rao, 51, and another man taking a bicycle from a campus loading dock, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office has decided Rao will face no criminal charges in the matter.

Rao, who maintained he never intended to steal the bike, struck a deal with prosecutors under which they would withhold any charges in exchange for community service and a small fine. He volunteered 18 hours at the American Cancer Society and paid $195 to reimburse the government for the cost of his prosecution and investigation.

"He's moved on from the matter," said Rao's attorney, Stephen Romine, who said the former dean has been named chief executive of the Institute of Women's Health of North America. State documents show he took over the Orlando-based center, formerly the Orlando Family Planning Center, in late April.

Bike owner Tim Boyd, meanwhile, was floored by the lack of prosecution.

"I'm not happy," he said.

Rao called Boyd into his office on Feb. 11, after word of a stolen bike spread through the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center & Research Institute. Boyd told police that Rao apologized and asked the graduate student to tell police it was a misunderstanding.

Rao explained to investigators and reporters that he believed the bike to be abandoned and intended only to lend it to Victor Waiters, the man who appeared with him in the surveillance video. Rao described Waiters as a homeless handyman from Miami who frequently does work for him and who needed the bike to get to the Department of Motor Vehicles to replace his lost identification card.

In an April 24 letter to Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore released Tuesday, Romine argued that Rao lacked criminal intent when he took the bike.

"He was open in his actions, not clandestine," Romine wrote. "He knew the cameras were watching. He drove up in his car. He got out of his car. He put himself in view of the camera."

The original YouTube video was removed from the Web site at least twice after Rao said he complained to the site's managers.

On Tuesday, the State Attorney's Office released the video in its entirety as well as videotaped police interviews with Rao and Boyd. The surveillance video shows graduate student Christine Dillingham, who borrowed the bike from Boyd, walking it up the loading dock ramp on the morning of Feb. 9, then two men taking the bike later that night and loading it into a minivan before driving away. It also shows Waiters returning the bike to the loading dock on Feb. 11, after emerging from what appears to be the same minivan.

On Tuesday morning, Romine said the community service arrangement came about after he met with prosecutors to discuss the case. He said the agreement to perform community service is not an admission of guilt.

"For us," Romine said, "the right result happened."

In a settlement agreement reached between Rao and USF, university officials agreed to pay Rao $50,000 if he resigned and agreed not to sue the school.

But soon after, Rao attempted to rescind his resignation. Romine and a university spokesperson said Rao has done nothing further to argue for his former post.

One thing the incident did reveal were deep-seated tensions between some employees of the Byrd Center and some in the administration of USF, which took control of Byrd last year. Rao, whose responsibilities included distributing grant money, was himself a lightning rod for tension and unhappiness at USF's College of Medicine.

When the stolen bike surfaced, so did Rao's critics.

Boyd said the department is somewhat changed since Rao left. Nevertheless, he said, he thought Rao would have faced steeper legal ramifications. "Apparently," Boyd said, "the laws do not apply equally to everyone."

Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said the agreement reached with Rao is commonly extended to first-time offenders.

Rao did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Former USF dean Abdul Rao, accused in bike theft, faces no criminal charge 06/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 7:56am]

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