Four days before the Hennepin County attorney declined to charge Chinese billionaire Richard Liu with sexual assault, the attorney for the University of Minnesota student claimed that U officials ignored a graduate program's "sexually hostile environment," which allowed the alleged rape to happen.
In a letter to the U's attorneys that attorney Wil Florin said was a precursor to a lawsuit, he claimed that the university "placed its own financial and political interests ahead of the safety and security of its female students."
Liu, 45, also known as Liu Qiangdong, founded Beijing-based JD.com, an e-commerce site similar to Amazon with more than 300 million customers. He has an estimated net worth of $5.4 billion.
He was one of a group of wealthy Chinese executives attending a special program to obtain a doctorate in business administration (DBA), sponsored by the Carlson School of Management in collaboration with a Beijing university. Florin's client, a 21-year-old undergraduate, was a volunteer in the program during a weeklong residency by the executives when the alleged rape occurred the night of Aug. 30.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Dec. 21 that his office decided it could not prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Liu raped the woman. "Because we do not want to re-victimize the young woman, we will not be going into detail," he said in a news release.
Florin said that he will still proceed with a lawsuit against the university.
Among his allegations:
• Tony Haitao Cui, deputy associate dean at the Carlson School, recruited Florin's client to be a volunteer for the program, and after police began investigating the case, Cui told a witness the accusation would have a devastating effect on the program, possibly ending it. He also communicated with the woman's parents to try to "downplay" the incident.
• The Chinese executives did not receive sexual harassment training required of all students entering the U.
• The volunteers recruited to aid the mostly middle-aged executives were by and large young female students. The U encouraged the volunteers to socialize and should have known it would include a lot of drinking and a sexually hostile atmosphere.
• The U did not offer the woman federally mandated support or counseling.
The Star Tribune sought comments from both the U and Cui. University spokeswoman Caitlin Hurley replied, "The University does not respond to any inquiry that would compromise our legal responsibility to protect the privacy of students and employees."
Liu's attorney, Jill Brisbois, did not respond to Florin's claims and referred to a statement she issued earlier. She said that after the incident the woman initiated contact with Liu's assistants, then Liu's attorney, demanding money or she'd go public.
Florin says Liu's representatives initiated the contacts and Liu's lawyer inappropriately contacted his client first.
Florin claims in the letter that before the Liu incident, his client received "a sexually suggestive/harassing message" from another executive who was a student in the program. Florin said his client was told by a U official to ignore it. Florin wrote that there were "issues arising from male executive-female volunteer contact" before the incident but gave no details.
The incident evolved from a dinner for Chinese executives that Liu hosted at the Origami restaurant in Uptown. The executives were men, much older than she was, Florin says.
Two versions have emerged as to what happened. According to a source, the woman says she was invited to the dinner, the executives got her drunk by toasting her, she asked for an Uber to go home, and instead she was taken by Liu in his SUV to her apartment, where he raped her despite her pleas that he stop.
According to Liu's attorney, she wanted to attend the dinner, poured her own wine, did not appear drunk, wanted to stay with Liu, and he drove her to her apartment, where they had consensual sex.
The alleged victim, called "Jane Doe" in Florin's letter, has not been publicly identified. Florin wrote that the young woman was invited by Cui to be a volunteer for the DBA program.
"Whether by design or coincidence, the selected volunteers were almost exclusively young women while the DBA China businessmen/students were almost exclusively male and middle aged," Florin wrote. He said the U "encouraged these female undergraduates to socialize on and off campus with the businessmen/students. The University of Minnesota knew or should have known that this socializing included significant consumption of alcohol and a sexually hostile environment."
Florin alleges that "communication by Tony Cui to Jane Doe's parents after this assault was characterized by an effort to downplay these events in their significance and severity." He adds, "We see this as a clear effort to influence Jane Doe against pursuing her legal rights as a victim."
He says a witness was told by Cui "that pursuit of these allegations would have a devastating effect upon the DBA program up to and including its demise." He says a witness was summoned to meet with an executive "to discuss incriminating evidence regarding Liu on his smartphone."
Florin said that the university took no action to implement a "no contact rule," required under federal guidelines, which precludes alleged assailants from contacting a victim after an assault.
Florin said that in a 2015 federal settlement, the U was required to provide students with training and education regarding sexual harassment, hostile environment and sexual violence before registering for classes.
"As you may be aware, the businessmen/students, including the assailant in this subject instance, did not receive any training, education or information on interactions with other students or the expectations of them while on campus or engaging in University related events," he wrote.
Florin also accused the U of "troubling breaches of the duty owed by the University of Minnesota" to his client. He wrote that the U failed to meet Title IX requirements by not offering his client "support, guidance assistance or counseling." Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs.
He also criticized the U for not responding to his requests for information under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.
"We are concerned that the University's extended silence is sending a message that catering to the moneyed and powerful is more important than the dignity and well-being of its more ordinary students," Florin said in a statement to the Star Tribune.
Lewis Leung of the Star Tribune contributed to this report. Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst