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Jameis Winston case: Attorneys dispute $7 million settlement talk (w/video)

Jameis Winston, left, watches from the sidelines after being suspended for Florida State's game against Clemson on Saturday. [Getty Images]
Jameis Winston, left, watches from the sidelines after being suspended for Florida State's game against Clemson on Saturday. [Getty Images]
Published Sep. 25, 2014

After weeks of relative silence, the saga surrounding sexual assault allegations against Florida State University star quarterback Jameis Winston exploded Wednesday with incendiary remarks, a scathing 13-page letter and a dispute over a potential seven-figure settlement with his accuser.

The latest step in the months-long ordeal began when Winston's adviser, David Cornwell, told FSU in a letter that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner would cooperate with the school's Title IX investigation. Cornwell wrote that Winston answered questions from the school Jan. 24 and will meet with the school again as it determines whether he broke FSU's code of conduct in an off-campus sexual encounter in December 2012.

What followed was a charged back-and-forth.

Cornwell wrote that he met with the accuser's then-attorney, Patricia Carroll, in February 2014. That was two months after the State Attorney's Office declined to press charges against Winston for an alleged sexual assault.

According to Cornwell's letter — dated Tuesday and obtained by the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday morning — Carroll demanded $7 million to settle potential claims against FSU, the Tallahassee Police Department and Winston.

"Ms. Carroll stated, 'If we settle, you will never hear from my client or me again — in the press or anywhere,' " Cornwell's letter said. "Ms. Carroll stated that Mr. Winston should pay FSU's and the TPD's alleged portion of liability to avoid the public scrutiny of a trial at the time he would be trying to begin his NFL career."

Cornwell, who has represented professional athletes such as Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Braun, said he rejected the demand. Later that month, Winston's accuser hired two high-profile Title IX attorneys — Colorado-based John Clune and Baine Kerr.

"The facts that Mr. Cornwell chose not to disclose are that it was he himself who reached out to our client's former counsel Patricia Carroll to discuss paying off our client," Clune said in an email. "Patricia Carroll didn't even know who David Cornwell was until he called. Mr. Cornwell then himself flew down from Atlanta to negotiate with Ms. Carroll."

Clune said his client's main concern was holding Winston accountable, not money, and that Cornwell threatened to sue for civil racketeering.

Carroll, who is based in Dade City, declined to comment, other than referring to Clune's statement.

Wednesday's developments stem from a case that began almost two years ago, when a then-FSU student told campus and Tallahassee police she was sexually assaulted. The case stalled but was reactivated in November 2013, after inquiries from the Times and other media outlets.

The State Attorney's Office investigated but declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence and the accuser's spotty memory. But FSU's investigation is different.

The punishments are lower in university cases than in criminal courts, and so is the burden of proof. Instead of showing guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," schools only need a "preponderance of evidence." If it's 50.1 percent likely that an assault occurred, the perpetrator should be punished.

FSU began to re-examine the case by interviewing the accuser Aug. 7 and asked to interview Winston in a letter dated Sept. 5, according to Cornwell. Federal guidelines call for a resolution within about 60 days.

"Mr. Cornwell appears to know that Mr. Winston is about to be charged by Florida State with sexual assault and this letter seems to be his final attempt to prevent FSU from complying with federal law," Clune said.

But Cornwell's letter expressed doubt about the legitimacy of the school's inquiry. Three sets of investigators, Cornwell wrote, have directly or indirectly cleared him of wrongdoing: Tallahassee police, the State Attorney's Office and FSU, in a conduct hearing for teammates Chris Casher and Ronald Darby, who witnessed at least part of the incident.

Cornwell also questioned whether FSU's policies give Winston due process and deny him access to all available information.

"He looks forward to clearing his name," Cornwell wrote. "But, Mr. Winston will not walk into a honey trap. The Investigation must be a legitimate investigation."

FSU has consistently declined to comment because of student privacy laws. A federal investigation and the ongoing threat of lawsuits make a thorny case even more complex.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights began investigating FSU's policies and handling of the Winston case in April, after receiving a complaint from Winston's accuser. Because that investigation is ongoing, Cornwell wrote that Winston's hearing should take place after the federal review is complete to avoid a conflict of interest and to keep FSU from "sacrificing Mr. Winston" to avoid a lawsuit.

Cornwell alleged that the accuser stalled the Title IX process for 20 months "to cloak a money grab as a legitimate Title IX complaint."

Her attorneys have said she was always willing to cooperate with disciplinary charges against Winston, and that FSU first contacted her in October 2013.

The attorneys traded more jabs: Winston's adviser alleged that Carroll made a racial remark, while Clune said Cornwell's conduct was "crude and insulting."

Winston served a one-game suspension last week for the defending national champions after making sexually explicit remarks to mimic an Internet meme. He is scheduled to return to the field Saturday when No. 1 FSU plays at North Carolina State.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.