By Letitia Stein
TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - Florida State University defended its handling of sexual assault allegations against Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston on Friday, breaking its silence about a case under investigation by federal education officials.
In an open letter, Florida State officials said they were trying to protect students.
"We did not want you to confuse our silence with idleness, a lack of caring or, as some have alleged, an institutional conspiracy to protect a star athlete," the university wrote.
Officials did not name Winston, identified as "a prominent athlete," but detailed a widely reported timeline beginning with allegations that he assaulted a woman in December 2012.
The explanation comes as a quarterback at the University of Florida, another football powerhouse, faces accusations of sexual assault, and the National Football League remains under scrutiny for its handling of actions by their players against women.
Florida State in Tallahassee turned the initial complaint over to local law enforcement after determining the incident occurred off campus, officials wrote.
Athletics officials learned about the accusations in January 2013, after the woman identified Winston as her assailant. They determined the encounter was consensual after interviewing two other athletes present, the letter stated.
Athletics officials, informed that police were no longer investigating, did not file a report to the university office charged with investigating reports of sexual violence under federal law. That office did not learn about the case until November 2013 following media inquiries to police, the university wrote.
Officials quickly moved to protect the privacy of the woman, also a student. A Florida State investigation under federal law initially found not enough evidence to proceed.
In December, a Florida state attorney determined there was insufficient evidence to bring sexual assault charges.
In April, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into Florida State's handling of the case. The next month, Florida State said it issued student conduct charges against the two athletes who witnessed the incident for invasion of privacy.
University officials said that in August, after months of requests, they interviewed the female accuser. Based on her statement, Florida State reopened its investigation under federal law. Winston is cooperating.
Attorneys for the woman said Florida State's timeline was full of errors and accused the university of breaking laws to protect its football program.
An attorney advising Winston said the new facts support his contention that allegations are false.
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Jim Loney)