A CONSPIRACY SO IMMENSE...The Rowans had brushed off the student movement and the rumblings of the fired faculty, but with Rhodes's announcement, a disturbing new reality set in: Their critics were winning. If a competitor came to town, especially one with the cachet of the internationally famous School of Visual Arts, the Rowans might lose the one thing their art college had over all the others-Savannah. The city was theirs. They were the first to capitalize on the place's brochure-ready quality. Indeed, no one, save perhaps John Berendt, author of the best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, has contributed so much to Savannah's renaissance. Along the way, the Rowans had made a great personal investment in Savannah's marketability, and they weren't ready to cede any turf. In fact, they were prepared to fight for it with the no-holds-barred aggression of a multinational corporation. And the Rowans would use one of corporate America's favorite weapons: litigation.
The chain of events that led from the student movement to David Rhodes's announcement provided the Rowans with the legal ammunition they needed. The students were in contact with Varnedoe, who was in contact with Rhodes. And then there were all those fired professors who showed up at student rallies and at cocktail parties for the SVA president. Some of those professors had even filed complaints with SCAD's accreditating agency about the couple's behavior. To the Rowans, the relations of their various enemies had less the look of coincidence (or evidence of their widespread unpopularity) than of a nascent cabal. If the Rowans could definitively link the activities of all their critics, perhaps they could be eliminated by a single atomic bomb of a lawsuit.
If the Rowans had any doubts about their perceptions of a plot, a startling find soon solidified their faith. As part of the discovery process in the defamation suit filed by the students, Rick Fisher, the videographer, had to turn over thirty-six hours of footage of the student movement. When SCAD's attorneys pored through the tapes, amidst the students' sometimes hilarious ridiculing of the Rowans and the occasionally tedious expressions of victimization, they found what they deemed a "smoking gun."
In one scene on the tapes, Richard Averitt recounts his conversation with Gordon Varnedoe regarding Varnedoe's visit to the banks. In another, Marissa Magaz-one of the students whose registration was blocked after the first bombing-angrily outlines the steps necessary to remove the Rowans, then exclaims, "Boom! Boom! Boom! They'll be fucking reeling!"
In another, Julie Lansaw leans back on a sofa and laughingly recounts a conversation between fellow students Chip Baughman and Rick Averitt in which they characterize the student movement. "We were joking," Lansaw tells the camera, "and Rick said, 'Oh it's like a conspiracy,' then Chip goes, 'It's not like a conspiracy-it is a conspiracy,' and I'm thinking, 'My God, if this guy's wired, that's all they'd need. We'd all be dead.'"
From the Rowans' point of view, Lansaw had given a precise name to the encroaching threat: conspiracy. Hadn't the students just admitted as much? Based on the students' videotapes, the Rowans believed they saw a carefully orchestrated five-step scheme to damage SCAD that included interfering in the school's banking relations; damaging recruiting; initiating a hostile media campaign ("You're part of it," SCAD's Avis Coleman told me); attempting to remove the school's accreditation; and enticing a competitor. The supposed conspirators mocked the conspiracy charge as just another paranoid episode on the part of the Rowans. But the couple was taking the threat seriously; in February 1993, SCAD filed a $103-million lawsuit against SVA, alleging the New York school had masterminded or at least benefited from the elaborate scheme. SCAD sued for conspiracy and "tortious interference," the same legal theory tobacco companies have used to threaten the media and whistle-blowers.
PRIVATE EYESTo advance their case, the Rowans needed more information. Keeping track of their enemies was a daunting task-there were so many-so they enlisted some help: several attorneys and a team of private investigators.
The private eyes embarked on an ambitious and far-reaching campaign of surveillance against the Rowans' critics. They tailed SVA president David Rhodes. They followed Batman Varnedoe and photographed him emerging from local restaurants, and in the parking lot of a local hotel where SVA officials were meeting. They staked out Varnedoe's beach house on Tybee Island and took numerous photographs of the Batvan, occasionally zooming in to focus on the School of Visual Arts sticker in the window. (After Varnedoe learned of the surveillance in court proceedings, he sold the Batvan. "It was suffering from overexposure," he said.) A former SCAD professor was followed at an academic conference in Seattle. Esther Shaver's bookstore was staked out, and a SCAD security guard later said he was ordered to "track down" Shaver's daughter. The Rowans' critics weren't surprised by SCAD's behavior-employees had earlier contended that Richard Rowan once asked them to bug a conference room in which SCAD's accreditors were meeting-but the campaign further alienated the couple from the community they so relied upon for success.
In May 1993, armed with information from the surveillance campaign, SCAD moved to add names to the conspiracy suit: Varnedoe, several fired professors, and ex-trustees Joyce Maynard and Pat Conroy. (Conroy had told a New York Times reporter that he'd quit SCAD's board "because I thought I'd end up in jail," so SCAD added a libel claim to his suit, making the comment "the most expensive quote of my life," he said.) SCAD also countersued the students, saying they, too, had been part of the "conspiracy." The Rowans' critics said the lawsuits were meant simply to eradicate SCAD's new competitor. But SCAD argued that SVA wasn't playing fair. "This wasn't Hardee's opening up across from McDonald's," SCAD spokesperson Avis Coleman said. "This is about a conspiracy to take something over."
There were some problems with the Rowans' conspiracy theory: For one, some of the supposed participants had never met each other. "I kept reading that I was conspiring with some guy who goes by the name of fucking Batman!" Pat Conroy said. "I told him I didn't know what kind of weirdness he was up to." (Joined in litigation, Conroy and Varnedoe have since become friends.) Furthermore, even though SCAD administrators had earlier insisted on a connection between the student "conspirators" and the bombings, the ATF received a tip leading investigators to arrest two other SCAD students, ones who weren't affiliated with the student movement at all. Administrators were quick to point out that the vandals had voted on the constitution, but so had half the student body. (The two students eventually pled guilty to the bombings.)
Whatever its weaknesses, SCAD's bellicose legal strategy had its foes on the run. While SCAD's legal bills were paid from the school coffers, the defendants in the lawsuit were unsure how they were going to afford a protracted court battle. In an effort to find affordable help, Jim Rogers and Paul Marquardt, another former professor, contacted Ralph Nader's office in Washington. Nader's office steered the professors toward Leonard and Beth Minsky, a father-daughter team who work on higher education issues at the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, a Washington watchdog group.
In July 1993 Varnedoe contacted Julie Lansaw, and along with Rogers and Marquardt, they met the Minskys in Washington, D.C. The group sat for about seven hours and discussed the SCAD saga-the school's nonprofit status; the faculty firings; the paranoia and the stifling of speech on campus. The curiosity of Leonard Minsky, an aging radical and an avuncular former professor with glasses and an Einsteinish shock of white hair, was immediately piqued. "The students had been told they were criminals," he said. "But we told them they had done what the Constitution of the United States mandates." Leonard Minsky gave them moral support, while Beth, an attorney, proposed a strategy. Rather than simply defend the "conspirators," she would charge that all of SCAD's quirks-the questionable role of the board of trustees, the absence of tenure, the offering of an allegedly specious degree in art history, the false promise of a functioning student government-amounted to a "racket" set up for the personal gain of Richard and Paula Rowan. And she would do so using a powerful legal instrument-the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Under Georgia RICO laws, damages are tripled, and the beneficiaries of a RICO enterprise can be removed from their positions.
Previous --- Sinister Designs --- Next
Copyright © 1997 Lingua Franca,Inc. All rights reserved.