Survey review could take months

January 14, 2004 

A California State University, Stanislaus, investigation into a survey scandal involving the Scott Peterson double-murder case may last several weeks or months, President Marvalene Hughes said Tuesday.

A preliminary inquiry launched Thursday at the Turlock campus, which had been predicted to take a week, has evolved into the full-blown investigation, Hughes said.

"I want the community to have the patience that is needed in order to investigate this case thoroughly and appropriately," she said.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami cited the 10-county survey, overseen by Professor Stephen Schoenthaler, in a decision Thursday to move the Peterson trial out of Modesto. Girolami did not know about allegedly falsified survey data until later Thursday.

Peterson, 31, is charged with killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Also Tuesday:

  • Another criminal justice student came forward to The Bee, bringing to nine the number who have claimed fabricating survey responses. All said they were pressed for time during finals and worried about telephone bills because they were required to make dozens of lengthy, long-distance calls with their own phones.

  • A national association of pollsters issued a rare official statement, calling the survey a disgrace if the allegations are true.

  • Another judge extended Sharon Rocha's authority over the estate of her daughter, Laci Peterson.

    Schoenthaler continues to teach a course during Stanislaus State's winter term, university spokesman Don Hansen said, and is expected to teach other classes during the spring semester. Hughes said the professor will remain on the job during the investigation.

    "I would like to give the community the absolute assurance that we will take all cautions necessary to protect the individuals involved," Hughes said, "and to protect the quality of the academic process at the university."

    Schoenthaler initially said he did not believe the students' claims and later said he needed more information.

    Hughes said the investigation will take two tracks, one to scrutinize Schoenthaler and the other his students. Overseeing the probes are, respectively, Vice Provost Diana Demetrulias and Vice President for Student Affairs Stacey Morgan-Foster.

    Tenured professors like

    Schoenthaler enjoy many protections through a labor unit contract. Administrators, however, can levy discipline ranging from a reprimand to dismissal if an investigation determines policy was violated.

    Hughes said no tenured professor has been fired during her 10 years as university president.

    Discipline for students guilty of "academic dishonesty" ranges from probation to expulsion, she said.

    Survey review an issue

    In a press release, Hughes said the probe will review whether Schoenthaler submitted his plan for the survey to a university committee overseeing such research. Schoenthaler last week said he did not, maintaining that his surveys are exempt from federal regulations, but his division coordinator and Demetrulias said all such plans must be presented for review.

    The investigation also will cover "identification of any costs associated with responsibilities" of Schoenthaler's students, according to the release.

    Hughes said she will keep an appropriate distance from the probe and does not know whether Schoenthaler has cooperated so far.

    "It's difficult for me, and it means it will be some time before I can even predict what the issues are," Hughes said.

    "Taking the time to sort this out has been tedious," Hughes continued. "Now we have a handle on it, we know what the procedures are and we are prepared to move forward as expeditiously as possible."

    Meanwhile, the 1,800-member American Association for Public Opinion Research issued a tersely worded condemnation of "unethical and irresponsible practices reported to have been used" in Schoenthaler's survey.

    Bad publicity for pollsters

    Association President Elizabeth Martin said from her office in Washington, D.C., that her group released the statement "because of all the publicity, and we don't want people to think this is how surveys are normally done."

    The release states: "All reputable surveys monitor or check for the possibility of falsification by directly observing or by calling back a sample of cases to ensure interviews were done." Schoen-thaler previously conceded that he did neither.

    The statement added: "It is exploitative to require students to carry out a telephone survey with inadequate supervision and at their own expense."

    Martin said Schoenthaler does not appear on her group's membership list.

    A section of the association's Web page dedicated to press releases and official statements lists only one other condemnation of an ethics violation -- issued in 1997. A Virginia firm had failed to cooperate with an inquiry into a poll on the 1994 Republican Contract With America.

    Also Tuesday, Superior Court Judge John G. Whiteside postponed a court date regarding Laci Peterson's estate until Feb. 10.

    At issue is control of her property, including joint ownership with her husband of their home on Covena Avenue in Modesto, along with vehicles and other belongings.

    Attorney Pat Harris of the Los Angeles law firm Geragos & Geragos, which represents Scott Peterson, said Peterson's parents need more time to hire a probate lawyer.

    Rocha appeared in court Tuesday, but did not speak.

    Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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