The first time Moshe Porat brought up WhatsApp to his executive assistant, he was still dean of the Fox Business School at Temple University. The rankings scandal that would eventually engulf the business school and lead Porat to a federal courtroom facing fraud and conspiracy charges — and the possibility of up to 25 years in prison — was just starting to heat up.
Virginia Roth, Porat’s executive assistant for 22 years, said Porat asked a puzzling question: Have you ever heard of WhatsApp?
No, she replied.
“And he said, ‘It’s an app where you can send text messages and no one can trace them. They disappear. You should get that,’” Roth testified yesterday (November 19) in courtroom 11A of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania District Court, during the sixth day of testimony in Porat’s trial.
“I asked myself, why would I have a text message exchange with Dr. Porat that I would want to have disappear? I would never. That just didn’t seem right to me.”
‘I HAD A LOT OF ANXIETY ON SUNDAY NIGHTS’
For six days, Porat has listened to a slew of former colleagues testify against him on behalf of the federal government. His family, including his wheelchair-bound wife, has sat quietly behind him throughout the trial. He is accused of orchestrating a scheme to knowingly submit false GMAT submission numbers to U.S. News & World Report in order to climb in the magazine’s online MBA rankings and, in turn, attract more students and more tuition.
Two other former Fox employees, statistics professor Isaac Gottlieb and manager of finances Marjorie O’Neill, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the case and each face up to five years in prison.
On a relatively quiet day, with more procedural issues to sort through than witnesses, Roth told the jurors that Porat asked her about WhatsApp for the second time after he’d already been fired from Fox in the wake of the scandal.
Roth told him she had tried to download the app but couldn’t figure it out. “That wasn’t true, but I just wasn’t able to tell him, ‘No, I didn’t do it.’ I just thought that was easier,” she testified.
Assistant U.S. attorney Nancy Potts asked Roth what it was like working for Porat; What it was like coming into the office as his assistant for more than two decades?
“I had a lot of anxiety on Sunday nights. I worried about whether I had missed something,” she testified. “I didn’t want him to get upset if I made a mistake.”
WHY THE EMAILS MATTER
Throughout the trial, lawyers from both sides have paid close attention to a series of congratulatory communications Fox sent out in the hours, days and weeks that followed the discovery of the false GMAT numbers. They were central to a series of video clips the prosecutor’s played Wednesday and Thursday from Porat’s deposition taken for his $25 million defamation lawsuit against Temple. Several of the prosecution’s witnesses were questioned about the emails in both the direct and cross examinations.
Porat is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of wire fraud, and those are the charges it must prove. To convict Porat on wire fraud, prosecutors must prove four essential elements, according the Department of Justice’s definition:
- That the defendant voluntarily and intentionally devised or participated in a scheme to defraud another out of money;
- That the defendant did so with the intent to defraud;
- That it was reasonably foreseeable that interstate wire communications would be used;
- That interstate wire communications were in fact used.
The day began with the defense cross-examination of Diana Breslin-Knudsen, which began Thursday. Defense attorney Michael Schwartz pointed out that Knudsen (former vice dean at Fox, now retired) approved the VIP emails sent in mid-January 2018. Knudsen testified that she was the last person in the approval chain before messages went to dean Porat for the final say.
“Am I correct that you received the final version of the email that was going to go to the VIPs and the Deans Council, and you replied on January 22 that it ‘looks good,’” Schwartz asked Knudsen.
“You didn’t believe that you were committing a fraud when you said, ‘looks good?’ Did you?”
WHAT DID PORAT KNOW, WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?
On redirect, assistant U.S. attorney Marc Dubnoff was more animated than any other time during the trial. He referred Knudsen to the email blast from January 22 with the subject: “No. 1 online MBA and No. 2 online BBA in the nation – again.” He asked a series of questions, each louder than the last.
When Dr. Porat approved this email, did he know that Fox had submitted false information to U.S. News?
“Yes,” Knudsen answered.
Did he know that Fox had informed U.S. News that it had provided inaccurate information?
And did he know, on January 22, when he approved the email blast “to donors and potential donors across state lines” that Marjorie O’Neill had said to him in front of you and Dr. (Rajan) Chandran that he instructed her to send the false information to U.S. News?
COLOR-CODED EMAIL FOLDERS
As Porat’s executive assistant, Roth managed the dean’s incoming and outgoing communications, including emails, calendar appointments, travel arrangements and more. (She is now executive director for Fox’s current dean, Ronald Anderson.)
Porat received a lot of emails every day, and he wanted Roth to print out each one on paper. She used a color-coded folder system to organize them: Red-folder emails came from VIPs – the university president, provost, some deans – and needed a response within 24 hours. Green folder emails were less urgent, but still needed the dean’s attention. Yellow-folder emails were for Porat’s information, but didn’t require his response. Roth testified that she delivered the folders to Porat several times a day.
After he reviewed the emails, Porat hand wrote his responses and returned them to Roth to type up and send from his Temple email account, to which Roth had full access. He did, sometimes, type out his own emails and responses, “but it wasn’t often,” Roth testified.
Could you tell the difference between the emails that he personally responded to and the emails you typed for him? Potts asked.
“His emails were very succinct, very pointed and he liked to use exclamation points,” Roth said. “Mine were a little bit longer, the sentence structure was a little more involved, a little softer.”
Roth managed a large database of contacts that could be queried for a variety of communications – segmented email lists, mailing addresses for Porat’s Christmas cards, or invitations for an upcoming event, for example. People in the database were organized in tabs based on who they were to Porat and the university – alumni, donors, industry leaders, etc. Anytime Porat collected a business card from someone he wanted added, he’d write “database” along with the tab in which he wanted them included.
“Nothing went into the database unless he told me to,” Roth said.
One such tab was labeled Porat’s 100, but it actually had more like 400 names. They were Porat’s friends, important donors and alumni, and Temple VIPs.
On Jan. 19, after Fox had notified U.S. News that it’s GMAT submission data was wrong but before it had heard back from the rankings magazine in what it intended to do, Porat approved an email blast touting the No. 1 ranking for its online MBA program. It was meant to go to the “Porat 100.”
“I was very concerned knowing that U.S. News was reviewing the ranking and we didn’t know what U.S. News was going to do,” Roth said. “I told (Porat), ‘You don’t want to have to walk this back.”
But Porat was adamant, and he approved the final version. For the email blast to go out, Roth had to send the Porat 100 list to another employee who managed the blasts. Roth stalled instead. She called the employee and said that she wasn’t going to send the list just yet because she hoped Porat would change his mind.
A little later, Porat stood in front of Roth’s desk: “’I want that email to go out now!’ He was very adamant, and I wasn’t going to cross him at that point.”
THE ‘WALK TO THE TRAIN’ CONVERSATION
In another line of redirect questioning, Dubnoff asked Knudsen about the “walk to the train” conversation – the subject of several “sidebars” over the last two days. For the sidebars, the lawyers and the judge gather to the side of the bench and argue points of evidence and procedure. White noise was played over the courtroom’s speakers so that jurors, witnesses, and court observers could not hear what was argued. Dubnoff was allowed to ask Knudsen about the conversation on his redirect, with special jury instructions from the judge that it is admissible “soley for considering whether it is consistent with other statements” of O’Neill’s already admitted into evidence.
On the evening of January 9, 2018, the day the misreported GMAT figure had first become known at Fox, Knudsen made it a point to leave work at the same time as Marjorie O’Neill. The two women took the same train line out of Temple University, and Knudsen wanted to ask O’Neill what had happened.
Knudsen testified that she asked O’Neill three questions. First, how did the “data entry error” happen?
“And she said that the dean had told her to indicate that we had 100% GMAT takers, and that it was in the dean’s office and that Dr. Chandran was present,” Knudsen said.
She then asked why O’Neill would do it, even if the dean had told her to? Because technically Fox requires GMATs, even if it offers waivers to most online students, Knudsen said O’Neill answered.
Finally, she asked if there were other errors the dean had asked her to make in the U.S. News submission. O’Neill told Knudsen there were not.
Schwartz had a very brief cross examination of the “walk to the train” conversation.
“You asked miss O’Neill if there were any other errors in the surveys other than the GMAT. And she said no. Am I correct?”
“She lied to you.”
“Yes,” Knudsen answered.
It still is not known if O’Neill will take the stand. Prosecutors said Friday that they expect to finish up their case Monday or possibly Tuesday, if they don’t call O’Neill as a witness. They will meet this weekend to make that determination.
More About The Temple Rankings Scandal
How It Happened: Anatomy Of A Business School Rankings Fraud
Jones Day Investigation: Temple Dean Sacked Over Ranking Scandal
MBA Rankings: Why Business Schools Are Willing To Cheat
Trial Coverage: Trial Begins For Ousted Temple Dean In Rankings Fraud Case