The University of New Orleans has cancelled classes indefinitely as staff assess damages to the campus from Hurricane Ida. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Illuminator)
In the spring of 2018, a student at the University of New Orleans told administrators biology professor Shawn Vincent asked her for sex in exchange for an A in his class.
UNO administrators suspended Vincent immediately, and days later, when the student turned over to university officials text messages and an audio recording of Vincent, UNO President John Nicklow fired him within hours.
Despite the university’s swift response to her complaint, the student argued in a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana that officials at the public university should never have hired Vincent. He’d been arrested for using the internet to solicit an underage girl for sex eight years earlier. She said they should have fired him when they learned of that arrest.
UNO officials had been aware for 10 months that Vincent was arrested for a sex crime in 2009. He had told UNO the arrest was a mistake and that he’d never been tried.
But Vincent had, in fact, been charged with underage sex solicitation, a jury deadlocked, then he pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and had his criminal record expunged. UNO was unaware of this part of Vincent’s criminal history and remained so during interviews with the Illuminator over the last two months.
In an out-of-court settlement reached in August, the state paid the UNO student $20,000 to pull her lawsuit, according to documents released last month in response to a public record request.
The student Googled Vincent after she said he harassed her, something UNO didn’t do before hiring him, UNO administrators said in interviews. That’s how she found out about his previous arrest. At least two news articles mentioning Vincent’s arrest remain on the internet today.
It was the crux of her lawsuit: that school should have known about his arrest and not hired him.
Vincent denies he sought a 15-year-old for sex in 2009, and he denies propositioning the 26-year-old UNO student for sex in 2018.
“When UNO and the students found out about [my 2009 arrest], they made my life a living hell,” he wrote in an April 1 email to the Illuminator. “I asked my chair to [let me] resign on multiple occasions but she convinced me to stay on because of the logistics of replacing me halfway [through] the semester. At that point, I began drinking heavily to cope and eventually lost touch with reality.”
The student’s attorney advised her not to talk about the case. The Illuminator doesn’t identify probable sexual harassment victims without their permission.
After the alleged sexual harassment from Vincent, the student said her studies suffered and she missed a lot of classes. When possible, she avoided classes with male professors. In 2019, according to a deposition, she took a break from UNO.
“I have trouble sleeping and concentrating, trouble trusting men in general,” she said.
Dealing with sexual misconduct has proven expensive for the state of Louisiana overall. Records show the UNO student was one of seven people in 2020 who received financial settlements from Louisiana’s Office of Risk Management after alleging sexual misbehavior by public employees. By themselves, those settlements cost the state taxpayers $118,000, but they pale in comparison to the $446,000 the state spent in 2020 on defense attorneys and other legal expenses related to 44 sets of allegations of sexual misconduct. Of those 44 cases, 32 remain open, meaning the state is likely still spending money defending them.
The UNO case raises questions about the extent to which UNO and other public universities are vetting — or can vet — job applicants.
Vincent’s arrest for underage sex solicitation didn’t pop up during the background check UNO ran. “The background on him came back clean,” said UNO spokesperson Adam Norris last week. “As part of that check, he was asked the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? He responded that he had not.”
Almost immediately after Vincent’s August 2017 hire, Doug Mittelstaedt, UNO’s compliance officer in the school’s human resources department, learned of Vincent’s arrest from another UNO student who found an article about it online, according to emails made public through the first student’s lawsuit. That was nearly a year before the first student said Vincent harassed her.
One of the online articles about Vincent, published by the Kokomo (Ind.) Tribune, identified him as an assistant professor of anatomy at Indiana University Kokomo. It quoted Toby Aguillard, who was director of Internet Crimes Against Children Division of the Tangipahoa Sheriff Office, and the article incorrectly reported that Vincent had been arrested in Tangipahoa Parish.
The Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office was one of several law enforcement agencies working with the U.S. Secret Service on sting operations to catch sexual predators. Vincent was actually arrested at Landry’s Seafood on the New Orleans lakefront as part of this sting operation.
When he was asked to explain the newspaper’s report, Vincent told UNO officials that his arrest had been a mistake, and he didn’t correct UNO officials when they started looking in Tangipahoa Parish for information about his arrest.
All UNO officials had was news reports about the arrest, which they say was not reason enough to fire him — or even not hire him.
“You don’t not hire somebody because of an arrest,” said Nicklow, UNO’s president.
Is there anything I can do to get an A in this class?
On May 1, 2018, the UNO student, who had aspirations of medical school, emailed Vincent regarding her grade in BIOS 3284 Histology and Cytology, according to documents made public through her lawsuit. “Good morning Dr. Vincent, is there anything I can do to get one extra point to turn my 89.125 into a 90? :)”
Vincent responded, “I’m already too swamped to grade anymore.”
The student persisted because, according to a deposition following her lawsuit, she knew an A would look better to medical schools. She raised the possibility of cleaning the lab or Vincent’s office.
“One point means a lot to me at this moment so I was serious if you were willing to take me up on the offer lol,” she wrote.
After asking for her phone number, Vincent sent a text message the next day telling her to come to his Metairie home to earn the extra credit.
A little after noon that day, he wrote, “You understand this isn’t about cleaning right?”
“Ok, what am I gonna be doing,” she replied.
“Better talk in person. Can u come now?” he texted back.
“Ok,” she said.
“Are you sure you’re cool with this?” he texted right before 12:30 on May 2, 2018. “Just want things to be clear.”
“I’m here,” she responded.
The student said in legal documents that once she was inside Vincent’s home he told her to go to his bedroom where he wanted her to have sex with him. When she refused, she said he offered to change her grade if she kept quiet about his proposition. She said she no longer wanted her grade changed. But Vincent insisted, she said, and less than an hour later, he sent another text: “Ill update your score later tonight.”
She used her phone to record Vincent propositioning her and turned the recording over to UNO administrators. The Illuminator has not heard the recording.
Vincent did change her grade to an A, but, according to court documents, UNO complied with the student’s request to change it back to a B.
On June 11, 2018, she and an attorney met with Mittelstaedt in the school’s human resources department and described what happened.
The next day, Mittelstaedt told Vincent, then 39, that he was suspended pending an investigation. Vincent denied all the student’s allegations. He removed his personal items from his office and declined an invitation to return to UNO and talk to Mittelstaedt a second time about the interaction he had with the student.
On June 14, after reviewing the text messages, email messages and the audio recording provided by the student, Nicklow, at Mittelstaedt’s recommendation, fired Vincent.
Nicklow insists UNO did nothing wrong. In November 2017, Vincent completed the anti-sexual misconduct training required of every employee at the university, Nicklow said, and UNO never received another complaint about Vincent and sexual misconduct.
But there had been complaints arising from the online news stories about Vincent’s arrest, and those complaints had prompted Mittelstaedt to warn Vincent weeks before Vincent invited the student to his house.
“Please be extremely cautious in your interactions with students in order to avoid any appearance of improper behavior. When you meet with individual students, it is probably best to do so in a public area or at least with your office door open,” Mittelstaedt told Vincent on April 10, 2018 in an email made public through the student’s lawsuit.
‘You do not pose any danger to students’
Also on April 10, Mittelstaedt said in an email message to Vincent that he’d met with three people who expressed concerns about him teaching at UNO and that he’d stuck up for Vincent. (In that email exchange with Mittelstaedt, Vincent referred to some of those people as parents of students.) “I tried to carefully explain UNO’s position to them and assure them that you do not pose any danger to students,” Mittelstaedt wrote.
“Let me assure you UNO wants to treat you fairly and reasonably,” Mittelstaedt wrote to Vincent. “Frankly, if we had wanted to fire you over this matter, we would have done that when we first learned of the arrest back in August.”
Vincent brought up possibly changing his name, and Mittelstaedt responded with his “personal opinion (not an official UNO opinion)” that “it might be wise… if that is the only way you can disassociate yourself from the arrest information. Otherwise, this will likely haunt you for years to come.”
When Vincent wrote that he’d decided to follow through with the name change, Mittelstaedt responded, “I’m sure that was a tough decision for you to make, but it is probably for the best.”
The next week Vincent filed paperwork in Jefferson Parish to change his name to George Budwell.
Mittelstaedt and other UNO officials were willing to defend Vincent — and weren’t troubled by his criminal arrest — in part because he had cleared two background checks conducted by vendor General Information Services, Inc.
When Vincent was hired in August 2017, UNO had General Information Services take a standard look at the new professor. The vendor searched criminal records in Orleans, Jefferson and DeSoto parishes from 2010 to 2017, and Vincent came up clean.
Upon reading news reports that showed a Tangipahoa Parish deputy was involved in Vincent’s 2009 arrest, Mittelstaedt sent General Information Services an email message instructing the company to look in Tangipahoa Parish and find out “Was Shawn Vincent convicted or acquitted and what is the date of that decision?”
“Good news,” Mittelstaedt emailed Vincent when that second search came up empty. “I’ve received the results of the background check conducted for Tangipahoa Parish, and it confirms you were not convicted of anything. Therefore, this matter is closed.”
But neither of the background checks could have caught Vincent’s arrest. The one that included New Orleans only went back to 2010, but it was 2009 when he was arrested there. The second check went back to 2009, but looked only at Tangipahoa Parish. Vincent had been arrested in New Orleans.
‘That case has never left my mind’
The sting operation that led to Vincent’s arrest involved Louisiana State Police, U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Marshal’s office, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office and St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“The operation’s purpose was to identify child predators that use the internet/computer-aided means to solicit minors,” wrote Robert Grimes, then a sergeant with Louisiana State Police, in a 2009 report obtained through a public records request.
On that June 24, Grimes began posing as “lilbeca2012,” a 15-year-old Covington girl in a Louisiana online chat room hosted by Yahoo.
A person going by “tjones” eventually engaged with “lilbeca2012,” asked how old she was and what “she looked like.” According to Grimes’ report, the conversation eventually turned sexual, even after “tjones” was told “lilbeca2012” was 15.
According to the police report, “tjones” proposed going to a hotel room to “have some fun” and also asked “are u on bc?” — meaning birth control. Then, “tjones” suggested to “lilbeca2012” that they meet and “If we like each other, we’ll go spend the rest of the afternoon f***ing our brains out.”
When “lilbeca2012” pushed back on a suggestion from “tjones” to meet outside Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter, “tjones” suggested the lakefront location and, according to the police report, wrote, “We could f***k in my car there?” They agreed to meet at the seafood restaurant that afternoon with “tjones” saying his real name was Jason. Grimes provided the name Beca.
Jason asked Beca, “Can u wear white panties for me?”
A younger-looking Secret Service agent wearing pigtails posed as Beca for the meetup later that day. Around 4 p.m. outside Landry’s Seafood, a man approached her.
“Hi, are you Beca?” he asked.
“Yes hi,” she replied.
“Hi. I’m Jason,” he said.
Law enforcement officials then swooped in to arrest the man, who was Vincent, then 31. He refused to answer law enforcement’s questions without an attorney present, Grimes wrote. He was booked into the Orleans Parish Prison with “computer-aided solicitation of a minor.”
In an email to the Illuminator earlier this month, Vincent said wasn’t looking for a minor for sex. “I thought I was meeting a 26-year-old woman in a bar for a drink. Nothing more.”
Vincent’s case didn’t go the way that law enforcement hoped it would. A New Orleans jury deadlocked, Louisiana State Police and Vincent confirmed.
“There was a hung jury and they tried to retry me for close to two years,” Vincent wrote in an email message to the Illuminator.
According to sources who were directly involved with the case but not authorized to talk about it, a prosecutor and Vincent eventually reached a deal requiring Vincent to plead guilty to a lesser crime of computer fraud.
That conviction doesn’t involve violence or sexual abuse, so it can be easily expunged. Vincent confirmed his record was expunged.
Toby Aguillard, former director of the Tangipahoa sheriff’s internet crimes division and the deputy quoted in the Indiana news report, was frustrated at the way Vincent’s case ended. In a recent interview, he said, “That case has never left my mind.”
Weeks after the sting operation nabbed Vincent, a St. John deputy working on that operation was arrested for selling computers confiscated from arrested suspects. The deputy’s arrest cast doubt on whether the law enforcement team was operating in an above-board manner, said sources with direct knowledge of the case.
Vincent said his attorney argued the chat conversation between “tjones” and “lilbeca2012” had been altered by police.
“My 2009 arrest was expunged because the evidence was problematic,” Vincent wrote in an email message.
While Vincent suggested, in that email, that someone else was responsible for the expungement of his criminal record, that’s not the way expungement works. Vincent would have had to take steps to expunge his record himself.
‘We don’t perform the function of law enforcement’
UNO officials said Vincent’s job application didn’t raise any red flags. Vincent had already taught at UNO part time in 2012, and there had been no complaints of sexual misconduct. Delgado Community College — one of Vincent’s previous employers — also didn’t raise concerns about Vincent’s behavior, said UNO’s attorneys in court documents. UNO was also leaning heavily on the background checks to turn up any troubling information.
“We don’t perform the function of law enforcement. We try to focus on the background check,” Nicklow, UNO’s president, said in an interview.
Court documents show that when Vincent was previously hired to teach part time at UNO in 2012, UNO “did not conduct criminal background checks of prospective employees.” The university didn’t adopt its current background check policy until 2013.
It’s unclear whether a commercial background check would ever have been able to pick up on an expunged arrest record like Vincent’s.
Louisiana state law allows certain groups — like licensing boards for medical professionals and attorneys as well as law enforcement entities — to access criminal records that have been expunged, but a private background check agency would typically not be able to see that information, according to expungement experts. Certain employers — such as K-12 schools — who hire people to work with children can also see expunged records, but that access may not extend to public universities.
UNO officials stressed several times to the Illuminator that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also advises against firing employees for arrests that don’t result in convictions — even arrests for serious offenses. Since UNO never uncovered that Vincent was convicted of a crime — albeit a lesser crime that wasn’t about sex — the university insists it wasn’t in a position to terminate Vincent over the arrest.
“As an institution, we can’t pick and choose what arrests deserve merit and what arrests don’t,” Nicklow said.
Except Mittelstaedt told Vincent he could be fired over the arrest — especially if students continued to raise concerns about it.
“If a significant number of complaints creates the risk of damaging publicity for UNO, we could be faced with a dilemma about how to handle this situation,” Mittelstaedt wrote in an email on April 11, 2018 to Vincent before the student accused him of harassment. “To be completely frank, if the number of complaints increases, we might be forced to consider ending your employment with UNO.”
‘I do not use that name’
Vincent blames UNO administrators for his troubles. He said they didn’t address mental health problems he had after students and faculty discovered his arrest for a sex crime.
“UNO could have accepted my resignation during the fall semester or they could have tried to get me some mental health care when it was evident I was having a psychotic break from the constant insults and physical threats from students. They did neither,” Vincent wrote to a reporter.
It’s not clear what Vincent has been doing since UNO fired him — or even what his name is.
A George Budwell — the same name Vincent legally took in 2018 — is living in the Philippines, and writes for The Motley Fool as an expert in healthcare and biotechnology companies, according to his online profile with the website.
According to his 2017 resume, Vincent wrote for The Motley Fool as an expert in healthcare and biotechnology. Vincent also lived in the Philippines between 2012 and 2017, before he started working full time at UNO, according to email messages he sent UNO.
“You have the wrong George. I do not have a U.S. visa,” Budwell responded to the Illuminator, who reached out on Twitter to ask if he is also Vincent. The user then blocked the reporter from further communication.
Nicklow, the university president, said he doesn’t believe UNO will face the same sort of problems with hiring a person like Vincent in the future. Nicklow said the university has learned its lesson and will pay more attention to what information is publicly available about job candidates before they hire them.
He said, “I think now we do a little bit more — I guess you could call it — Googling of job candidates?”
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