New judge appointed in Raese case against WVU
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin appointed a new judge Tuesday to oversee the lawsuit filed by John Raese's media company against West Virginia University.
The appointment comes after Bob Gwynne, Raese's attorney, alleged Monongalia Circuit Judge Phillip Gaujot threatened him 25 years ago and has personal social relationships with several people involved in the case.
Benjamin appointed Jackson Circuit Judge Thomas C. Evans to the case. He didn't cite a specific reason but said matters in the case "are sufficient to warrant such a disqualification to avoid even an appearance of impropriety."
In June, West Virginia Radio Corp. sued WVU Board of Governors Chairman Drew Payne, board members, university President Jim Clements, Athletic Director Oliver Luck, the WVU Foundation, West Virginia Media Holdings, its owner Bray Cary and others.
The lawsuit covers many issues but stems from the university's handling of its athletic media rights.
Raese spoke out after WVU signed a letter of intent with IMG College, a multimedia company that produces television and print content for clients around the world. The deal involved television and radio coverage of WVU athletics and presents a lucrative opportunity for everyone involved.
For years, Raese's company handled media work for WVU, but it was not included in the deal. In the lawsuit, Raese alleges school officials purposely sidestepped proper contract laws for their own personal benefit.
Since Raese's initial concerns, WVU has rebid the contract. IMG was again chosen as the school's media partner: They've agreed on a 12-year deal that guarantees WVU will receive at least $86.5 million. West Virginia Media Holdings is a subcontractor in the deal.
Raese didn't submit a bid but believes IMG and West Virginia Media Holdings should have been barred from entering into the contract.
The lawsuit was originally assigned to Gaujot June 25. In early July, attorneys representing Raese's company filed a motion to disqualify Gaujot.
In the motion, Gwynne alleges Gaujot threatened him in connection to a Fourth of July party in 1987.
Gaujot and Gwynne live near each other in the same Morgantown neighborhood. In 1987, Gaujot had a party where he invited Gwynne and many other neighbors. One of those neighbors does not get along with Gaujot, Gwynne stated. Because Gwynne invited that person, Gaujot and his wife became upset with Gwynne and did not attend the party.
Gwynne claims he tried to smooth things over with Gaujot after the party but that Gaujot rejected the apology, called Gwynne disloyal and told him "paybacks are hell."
"I then understood, and still understand, Mr. Gaujot's comments to have been a threat of future retaliation," Gwynne says in a sworn statement.
Gwynne also says Gaujot has or had other personal or professional relationships with other people employed by West Virginia Radio Corp., WVU and others involved in the lawsuit.
In a letter addressed to Benjamin dated July 19, Gaujot disputes Gwynne's claims about making a threat. He agrees Gwynne and his wife did not attend the party because the other person was invited but says he has no recollection of every saying any comment about paybacks. Gaujot and Gwynne stopped having social interactions because Gwynne divorced his first wife, with whom Gaujot's wife was close, Gaujot states.
Gaujot said he had considered Gwynne a friend and was "shocked" to learn of Gwynne's questioning of his impartiality.
"Furthermore, I can only hope that I would not be perceived as the type of individual who would harbor a grudge for nearly two decades over an invitation to a neighborhood July Fourth party, let alone threaten retribution as a result of it," Gaujot states in the letter.
"It is neither in my nature nor my character to behave in such a manner."
All that being said, Gaujot goes on to say he had considered recusing himself because of extensive prior social relationships with parties involved in the case.
He says he has had "limited social contact" with members of the WVU board of governors including Payne, officers of the West Virginia Foundation, Clements, Luck and Cary. He also states that he attended WVU.
Gaujot characterizes the interactions as "de minimus," a Latin phrase meaning minimal in nature. He says he would have disclosed all of the relationships to all parties involved. In reading about the case in The Dominion Post, he said, "my relationships with nearly all of the parties could potentially cause a problem requiring disqualification . . . under Rule 17.02, Voluntary Recusal by a Judge."
Gaujot states he would have no problem being impartial but submits it is up to the Supreme Court to decide.
In his order, Benjamin also suggests moving the lawsuit to the state's Business Court Division. Benjamin writes the issues may be more appropriate for that court and encouraged both parties and the judge to consider moving the case.
Gwynne did not respond to an email request for comment.