The chancellor of the University System of Georgia on Thursday took the unusual step of demanding that a GBI agent be removed from a criminal investigation at Fort Valley State University because, the chancellor said, the agent spent more time talking to reporters than questioning students and officials.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation responded by taking the agent off the case and pushing supervision of the investigation up the chain of command.
Chancellor Steve Wrigley lambasted the GBI special agent in a letter to the agent’s boss, GBI Director Vernon Keenan. “(He) has from the moment he got on the case been talking to the media. He has talked to more reporters than Fort Valley State University students and officials. Such behavior damages the quality, credibility and integrity of the investigation,” Wrigley wrote. His office shared the letter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He went on to ask that the agent be removed and replaced by “a professional team to complete the investigation.”
Two investigations are now underway at Fort Valley State: the criminal inquiry by the GBI and a separate inquiry by the university system. Publicly, officials and investigators have said little about the focus of the investigations. They are known to concern a university employee who has been placed on administrative leave, as part of an inquiry into misconduct and hazing. Several media outlets have reported that it involves the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
The sorority issued a statement earlier saying it was “appalled to learn of allegations of sexual misconduct against a Fort Valley State University employee who also is a graduate member of the sorority.”
‘I don’t want to believe anything’
The matter has alarmed the small, historically black college in Fort Valley, near Macon. Thursday was a normal day on campus: students walked to class and the library; others lined up at the student union to donate blood as “Bad & Bougee” blared from the sound system.
But the chief topic of conversation was anything but normal.
“I don’t want to believe anything, because these are very serious allegations,” said Trey Cole, 19, a sophomore from Cobb County. “I want to keep an open mind until the investigation is over.”
Across campus, students Jontavious Johnson and Dontrae Brown were hanging out near the fraternity plots — a plot displays an organization’s Greek letters and often includes a bench and some landscaping — talking about upcoming school assignments.
“I think this is very serious, because it makes our campus look bad,” said Brown, from Selma, Ala. “I wonder how the alumni must feel.”
Johnson, who is from Macon, questioned how it could happen on a black college campus. Or any college campus.
“I believe it happened and it was so unnecessary,” he said. “If one person did it, then the whole organization looks bad. And if the organization looks bad, the whole university looks bad. This reflects on all of us.”
‘Distressing at best, false in detail’
Chancellor Wrigley’s criticism of GBI Special Agent J.T. Ricketson was surprising because such public remonstrances are so uncommon in the upper reaches of the university system. Aside from saying Ricketson had talked to too many reporters, the chancellor’s sole complaint in his letter was that the agent had supplied incorrect information to the AJC regarding how the Fort Valley investigation began.
Ricketson told the AJC that the alleged wrongdoing came to light during a recent Board of Regents visit to Fort Valley. A student mentioned it to a regent, who reported it to the state attorney general’s office, which directed the GBI to open a criminal investigation, the AJC reported, attributing the statement to Ricketson.
The university system issued a statement, in addition to Wrigley’s letter, saying the account was incorrect.
“Statements published … by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are distressing at best and false in detail. We have asked that this agent be removed from any further involvement in the case.”
The statement continued: “On April 5, 2018, administrators from Fort Valley State University received two separate reports of alleged wrongdoing. One report was made anonymously as a tip on a campus complaint hotline. The second report was made separately by an employee to the campus Title IX coordinator. The USG in conjunction with FVSU began an immediate investigation in accordance with its policies.”
Wrigley’s complaint got the GBI’s attention.
“I have elevated the case to the command staff level of our investigative division,” Director Keenan wrote in a letter to Wrigley.
He said an inspector who reports directly to the deputy director will oversee the case. Keenan ended the letter with an assurance of a thorough investigation.
‘He’s not part of the investigation’
GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said supervision of the criminal investigation had been moved up the chain of command “to avoid any controversy with the investigative process.” She would not comment about Ricketson except to say “he’s not part of the investigation at this point.”
Miles confirmed that the Georgia Attorney General’s Office asked the GBI to initiate the criminal investigation. And Katie Byrd, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the Board of Regents asked the AG’s office for an investigation.
On the matter of how the investigation came to be, concern at the top levels of the university system extended to the university level.
“Fort Valley State University recently notified the University System of Georgia about potential employee misconduct,” said a statement by the university. “We can confirm that the University System of Georgia is now conducting an investigation into this alleged employee misconduct, and an FVSU employee who is allegedly involved has been placed on administrative leave.
“We can also confirm that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Attorney General are involved and investigating whether criminal activity has occurred. With the investigation pending, we cannot comment further.”
Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.