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New USF report cites contradiction, campus tension in bike incident involving Abdul Rao

TAMPA — The former University of South Florida administrator accused of taking a graduate student's bicycle gave police conflicting accounts of whose idea it was, according to an internal investigation released by the school Friday.

Abdul Rao, a former vice president of USF Health, first told campus police that when his friend said he needed a bike, Rao suggested that bikes were available at a campus loading dock, the report says.

But when Rao gave a written account to police, he said his friend, handyman Victor Waiters, first suggested that Rao let him "borrow" one of the bikes on the loading dock.

Rao, associate vice president of USF Health for five years, apologized and resigned from his $384,280 position on Feb. 17 after surveillance video of the incident appeared on YouTube.

He has since hired Tampa attorney Steve Romine to fight possible criminal charges and has asked for his job back.

Romine questioned the basis for the assertion that Rao gave differing accounts and dismissed its significance. Far more important, he said, is what the new report reveals about personal motives behind Rao's ouster.

The report cites tension among employees of the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute. And it notes a mentor relationship between the bike's owner, Tim Boyd, and Rao's predecessor, who was demoted after USF took over the center.

Romine said he wants to know exactly what piece of information USF police are relying on when they say that Rao was the first to mention the bikes.

Police have released only a preliminary report noting a Feb. 9 bike theft. They have not disclosed any other investigative documents, including those cited in the internal review.

But, Romine said, "even if it came up, it is a non-factor."

More important, the attorney said: "Just because someone uses erroneous judgment doesn't mean he has an intent to steal."

•••

Friday's six-page report authored by Paula Knaus, associate dean for faculty and staff affairs at USF Health, and Dwayne Smith, senior vice provost for USF, describes Rao as regretful but says he, "seemed to genuinely believe that they (the circumstances) were of minor consequence, and most certainly not criminal in nature."

Knaus and Smith did not interview Rao or Waiters for the report; they relied on police statements and interviews with seven others.

Rao, the report says, said he thought the bikes had been abandoned and offered them to Waiters, whom he has described as "semi-homeless," so that Waiters could go to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles the next day to replace his ID card.

In the report, Knaus and Smith write that Rao indicated that Waiters needed the ID to enable him to work on a job in the county.

"Dr. Rao did not seem to truly grasp the gravity of the situation until events were well beyond his control," the report reads.

Christine Tam, then interim director of operations at the Byrd center, told the authors that when she first learned the bike had been stolen on Wednesday, Feb. 11, she started to tell Rao about the discovery. And she was "on the verge of telling him about the video when he spoke over her to say that the bicycle had not been stolen, but that he had authorized his handyman, Victor Waiters, to borrow it."

Rao made a phone call and told Tam the bike would be returned. Video shows that at 12:36 p.m. that afternoon, Waiters rolled the bike up the ramp and leaned it against a railing.

Knaus and Smith conclude that "lingering tensions" among employees of the Byrd center and USF, which took over the Byrd center last year, "contributed significantly to the volume and far-reaching extent of the ensuing furor."

They point out that bike owner Tim Boyd is mentored by Dr. Huntingdon Potter, former director of the Byrd center.

During the USF merger, Rao replaced Potter as head of the institute, and Potter was demoted to senior research scientist.

The morning that Boyd learned of the video, Rao called Boyd into his office and asked him to tell police it was a misunderstanding.

"During his interview with us," the authors write, "Mr. Boyd said that before making a decision, he felt compelled to consult with his mentor."

Potter suggested that Boyd obtain a copy of the video, they write. Boyd made three — one to a flash drive, one to a desktop computer and a third to a flash drive that he asked a colleague to remove from the building.

Later that evening of Feb. 11, an edited version of the security video showed up on YouTube, first with the title "The Rao Project" and later called "Bike Stolen on Camera at Byrd Institute."

Boyd told Knaus and Smith that he did not post the video.

The report concludes that Rao did not bring "undue pressure" on Boyd during their meeting, describing Rao as "civil in his request."

•••

Originally, USF initiated the internal review to help determine what, if any, discipline would be necessary.

Though Rao's resignation rendered the discipline unnecessary, the administration resumed the investigation after Rao e-mailed USF College of Health dean Stephen Klasko to say he had been unfairly forced to resign and wanted to be reinstated.

University officials declined.

In their report, Knaus and Smith say they would have recommended stripping Rao of administrative assignments and related stipends.

They recommend a "climate review" at the Byrd center to ensure a "collaborative working environment exists … for all employees."

Klasko wrote in an e-mailed response that he is planning a retreat to deal with such issues.

Lastly, Knaus and Smith "strongly recommend" that the university tighten rules on the viewing and distribution of security tapes.

"Unfettered access demonstrated in the case discussed here could seriously compromise future investigations and/or prosecutions of serious criminal or civil matters," they wrote.

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

To read the full report and Dr. Stephen Klasko's full response, go to www.tampabay.com

New USF report cites contradiction, campus tension in bike incident involving Abdul Rao 03/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 9:43am]

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