Court document cites allegation on past research

January 21, 2004 

A professor at the center of a Peterson trial survey scandal ordered a researcher to falsify data on an unrelated poll several years ago, according to a witness cited in a court document.

The allegation did not change Superior Court Judge Al Girolami's decision to move Scott Peterson's double-murder trial out of Stanislaus County. Tuesday, Girolami reaffirmed his decision, and selected San Mateo County as the trial site.

Also on Tuesday, university officials said they are pressing forward with investigations into the scandal. They are targeting at least 65 criminal justice students at California State University, Stanislaus, and their professor, Stephen Schoen- thaler.

"There is nothing I would like to deliver more than a quick, appropriate, fair action," university President Marvalene Hughes said.

Hughes, other administrators and a California State University attorney declined to comment on Schoenthaler's history at Stanislaus State. Incidents include:

  • Sexual harassment allegations brought in 1990 by two female researchers; one was Justine Pinto.

  • Schoenthaler's demotion from full professor to associate professor pending investigation into those allegations.

  • Schoenthaler's exoneration and reinstatement in 1993.

  • Schoenthaler's $3 million lawsuit against the university and the two researchers in 1996. He said they hurt his research grant and chance at a Nobel Prize by spreading word about the 1990 allegations.

    Schoenthaler's attorney, Ernie Spokes of Modesto, said his client fired Pinto many years ago after determining that she falsified data.

    Pinto recently told an investigator working with Peterson prosecutors that Schoenthaler directed her to delete data that did not support his projected outcome on a project before 1992, the investigator wrote in a court document.

    Investigator Kevin Bertalotto wrote that Pinto came forward after news broke two weeks ago that Girolami, in agreeing to move the Peterson trial, cited Schoen-thaler's survey on potential jurors' opinions about the Peterson trial.

    Nine students eventually admitted that they had fabricated data, saying they were short on time and money. The university launched a formal investigation that could take months.

    On Tuesday, prosecutors asked Girol-ami to reconsider moving the trial from Modesto, saying his decision was based in part on a "fraudulent survey."

    But Girolami said he could not recon-sider, based on unidentified sources who spoke with The Bee but not investigators.

    Bertalotto said he had not been able to track down any of the 65 students who compiled data for Schoenthaler. The professor, citing student privacy laws and advice from his attorney, last week refused to give authorities class lists.

    Pinto, however, told Bertalotto that she worked for Schoenthaler until "about 1991." He ordered her to omit data that he thought were "anomalies" in research on whether vitamins and supplements increase intelligence, she told Bertalotto.

    Bertalotto identified the researcher by her maiden name and said he promised not to reveal her married name.

    In his 1996 federal court lawsuit on the Nobel Prize matter, Schoenthaler listed Justine Ponte as a defendant. The Bee was unable to reach Pinto or Ponte on Tuesday.

    Pinto told Bertalotto that Schoenthaler used her altered data in a published report, according to Bertalotto's document. She said she told two Stanislaus State faculty members "and no action was taken."

    A federal court docket indicates that a judge dismissed Schoenthaler's claim against Ponte in 1997.

    Also named in the lawsuit were several Stanislaus State administrators, including former President John Moore and former Provost Horace Judson.

    Schoenthaler in 1996 said the women filed the charges because they had failed to collect information needed for the research project and feared losing their jobs.

    Spokes said Pinto's 1990 allegation was tossed; the other woman was questioned in 1993 by an administrative law judge who found her account "riddled with inconsistencies and distortions." The judge ruled that Schoenthaler "acted honorably toward (his accuser) at all times" and exonerated the professor.

    The professor has taken heat from professional pollsters and associations, who railed on surveys done without adequate training, supervision and compensation for surveyors' expenses. Also, Schoen- thaler should have tried to verify some surveys by recontacting people who provided answers, experts said.

    Students, Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris said Tuesday, "had courage to stand up and say this (venue change) shouldn't happen based on (their) results."

    Girolami refused a prosecution request to order that Schoenthaler or the university give authorities names of students who worked on the survey. That should be left to the university probe, the judge said.

    Prosecutors indicated after the hearing that they will look closely at Schoenthaler's future work, Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said.

    "It'll certainly be an issue," Goold said, "if he volunteers his service as an expert in future cases."

    Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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

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