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Former Bull turns to feds in discrimination case

Dione Smith's attorney asks that the Department of Justice look into alleged civil rights violations within the USF women's basketball program.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2000


TAMPA -- The attorney for former University of South Florida point guard Dione Smith asked the United States Attorney's Office on Tuesday to investigate his client's allegations of civil rights violations by the university.

Jonathan L. Alpert, who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit last week on Smith's behalf, sent a letter to Donna A. Bucella of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa requesting "a full investigation" by the Department of Justice.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said he could not confirm whether his office would look into the matter.

Alpert said he is pursuing the case through the U.S. Attorney's Office because of the apparent scope of the lawsuit that involves USF women's basketball coach Jerry Ann Winters and athletic director Paul Griffin.

"When we filed the lawsuit (Thursday), it was possible that it only involved one person -- our client, Dione Smith," Alpert said. "It is now plain that it involves many, many people, and that there has been a course of conduct by the university over several years, and perhaps longer, of sweeping these kinds of matters under the rug or making it impossible for the injured students or coaches to pursue them.

"Once you have this concerted course of conduct, it becomes a matter that the civil rights division of the U.S. Attorney's Office or the Justice Department should perhaps look into. That is obviously going to be their determination."

When Smith's allegations became public, ex-USF players Avia Lee and Charmain Leslie echoed Smith's accusations of racial discrimination by Winters. A 1999 internal university investigation, made public last week, uncovered claims by current and former athletic department employees of an "undertone of racism" within the women's basketball program.

Smith's lawsuit says Griffin was informed of the racial climate but tried to "shut down" the internal investigation to prevent negative publicity. Confidential university documents obtained by the Times last week seemed to confirm that Griffin ordered the internal review halted after mandating a four-hour diversity seminar for Winters, who had undergone diversity training with all USF coaches in October 1997 at Griffin's request, according to the university.

The U.S. Attorney's Office wouldn't speculate on possible actions in the Smith case. Alpert said the office has several possible courses of action, including intervening in Smith's lawsuit or filing a civil or criminal lawsuit against USF.

"I am not pointing to any criminal violations at this time," Alpert said. "I emphasize at this time."

Asked Tuesday if Smith's suit might be settled out of court, Alpert wasn't optimistic.

"USF has made no overture -- and I emphasize no overture -- to resolve this," he said, "and that is disappointing."

Griffin could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Tuesday, USF issued its first public statement on Smith's case, saying: "The University of South Florida embraces diversity and will not tolerate discrimination in any form. If there is evidence of wrongdoing, USF will take corrective action. Such decisions must be based upon a complete review."

Said Alpert: "If it is an indication of a policy change, it is welcomed. If it is merely a public relations kind of effort, it obviously is not a particular improvement.

"I'm also kind of shocked that it has taken all that has happened in the last week to even get them to the point where they would issue a statement. So, what is it going to take for them to correct the problem? ... I'm not optimistic, but I'm cautiously hopeful."

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