SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — A federal civil trial pitting a former state university administrator in northeastern Pennsylvania against three men who say he sexually harassed and assaulted them while they were students opened Monday with one of the accusers saying he was too distraught to testify.
A 26-year-old man who says Isaac Sanders fondled his genitals and asked him for oral sex was the first witness to take the stand, but a few minutes into his testimony he simply stopped responding to his attorney's questions.
The jury was ushered out of the courtroom and the accuser, speaking in a monotone, told U.S. District Court Judge Robert Mariani: "I'm having some emotional difficulty. It's not easy."
Mariani then sent the jury home for the day and told the man that he needed to be ready to tell his story Tuesday morning or his testimony would be precluded.
Sanders was fired from East Stroudsburg University six years ago following an investigation by the agency that oversees Pennsylvania's state university system. Sanders, the university's vice president of advancement — its chief fundraiser — has consistently denied wrongdoing.
Now in their 20s and early 30s, the three accusers filed a federal lawsuit against Sanders in 2009, calling him a predator who used his position of power and influence to victimize them.
"It's a story of betrayal of trust" by a "very prominent and powerful man," the plaintiffs' attorney, Albert R. Murray Jr., said in his opening statement.
The young men came from disadvantaged backgrounds and were looking for a mentor or father figure to guide them through college, Murray told the jury. Sanders turned that desire to his advantage, dangling scholarships and campus jobs and then assaulting them, he said.
Murray said Sanders forced one of the young men to perform oral sex while they were riding in a car. He said the accuser subsequently washed his mouth with bleach and has since entertained thoughts of suicide.
Like Sanders, all of the accusers are black. The case includes an "element of race," Murray said, because in the "macho" community from which they came, "men have a tendency not to say anything. It's embarrassing."
Sanders' attorney, Harry Coleman, told the jury his client had fallen victim to "wild, consistent, unbelievable assertions" by accusers who lack credibility.
If Sanders did what he's being accused of, "then why did the plaintiffs go back in the company of Dr. Sanders?" he said.
As the civil trial got underway, the State System of Higher Education on Monday clarified what it did with the investigative report it commissioned on Sanders.
With a half-dozen accusers coming forward in 2007 and 2008, the agency hired an outside law firm to probe not only the sexual misconduct allegations against Sanders but also charges of financial malfeasance. He was fired in October 2008.
But the State System failed to turn over its investigative report on Sanders to any law enforcement agency, raising questions about whether the agency had sought to handle the matter internally and avoid a criminal probe.
Kenn Marshall, an agency spokesman, told The Associated Press earlier this month that no local, state or federal law enforcement agency had ever asked for the report. On Monday, Marshall revised that account.
"After a more thorough review of the files from nearly four years ago, we have found that a law enforcement agency did request a copy of the report; however, the report was sealed by court order because of the ongoing litigation," he said in a statement. "We did provide information about the report to the extent we were able to while adhering to the court order."
The State System got the report from its outside counsel in 2008. It wasn't until two years later, in September 2010, that the report was sealed by the judge.