Harrison Kowiak was 19 years old when he died after schoolmates pummeled him on a pitch-black field in Hickory, North Carolina. It was part of a fraternity hazing.
Determined to protect other students, Kowiak’s mother Lianne devoted herself to fighting hazing. She thought she had a powerful ally in U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson, who calls herself the “Haze Buster” and backed Florida’s tough anti-hazing law as a member of the state legislature in 2005.
Standing beside Wilson at a Capitol Hill news conference in September, Kowiak helped display a 10-foot-long banner headed “Hazing Kills,” and depicting a cemetery. As Wilson vowed to deny financial aid to students who engage in hazing, Kowiak applauded. What Kowiak didn’t know was that, behind the scenes, the fraternity industry’s political arm, known as “FratPAC,” had been pressing Wilson to back off. Today, 19 months after Wilson first promised an anti-hazing bill, she hasn’t filed one.
The industry’s lobbying is “disgusting,” Kowiak said in an interview. “What are the priorities here?” They “should be to stop hazing so none of our youth have to go through it.”
Even as deaths and injuries proliferate at their local chapters, traditional college fraternities resist a federal role in punishing hazing, contending that Wilson’s proposal would infringe on student rights and that existing state criminal laws are sufficient.
“Their opposition is very influential,” said Diane Watson, a former Democratic member of Congress from California, who sponsored an unsuccessful 2003 bill that would have denied federal financial aid for one year to students sanctioned for hazing. Even though FratPAC hadn’t yet been established, individual fraternities, schools and education groups “were able to stop the progress of the bill,” she said.
Harrison Kowiak was one of 59 students who died in incidents involving fraternities since 2005, about half of them alcohol-related, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Six others were paralyzed. Ten students died in 2012, the most fatalities in at least a decade.
At the same time, fraternity membership and revenue are surging. The 101 fraternities and sororities in the industry’s trade groups had 630,052 members in 2012, up 25 percent from 503,875 in 2007. National fraternities and their charitable foundations generated $170 million in revenue in 2010, mostly from student dues, up from about $150 million in 2005. Fraternity foundations collectively held $534 million in 2010.
One of FratPAC’s top priorities is a tax break for fraternities. Representative Wilson became a co-sponsor of the industry’s tax bill in April 2012, around the same time FratPAC was lobbying against her hazing proposal.
The roots of the tax legislation, and of fraternities’ growing Washington influence, trace back to a 1996 fraternity-house fire at the University of North Carolina that killed five students. Afterwards, fraternity leaders decided that they needed a federal law that would let them use funds in their charitable foundations to outfit chapter houses with fire sprinklers. In 2001, the industry engaged Patton Boggs LLP, a Washington law and lobbying firm whose clients have included Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
“Before that, I don’t think we ever had a Washington presence,” said Carlton Bennett, a Virginia Beach, Virginia, lawyer then on the board of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, an industry trade group.
In 2005, fraternity and sorority leaders advised by Patton Boggs election-law attorneys created the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, nicknamed “FratPAC” on its Twitter page.
FratPAC raised $506,852 for the 2011-2012 election cycle. Among its donors were executives from companies that fraternities and sororities hire to raise money for them; brokers from insurers that sell liability policies to Greek institutions; and lawyers who defend the groups in negligence and wrongful-death lawsuits.
Insurance-industry donors in 2011-2012 included FratPAC president Cindy Stellhorn and her husband, who collectively gave $20,000. Stellhorn is an executive at Indianapolis-based MJ Insurance Inc. FratPAC also took in $20,000 from Ned Kirklin, who sells liability insurance to fraternities and sororities for a unit of Willis & Co., and his spouse. He declined to comment.
Kelley Bergstrom, president of Bergstrom Investment Management LLC, a Kenilworth, Illinois-based firm that invests family assets, gave $10,000 to FratPAC. Bergstrom is also chairman of the University of Florida’s fundraising arm.
Since fraternities and universities have strong anti-hazing policies, federal legislation isn’t needed, Bergstrom said.
At his national fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, hazing “is a basis for dismissing a chapter,” he said.
Kevin O’Neill, Patton Boggs’s deputy chairman of public policy, helped start FratPAC in 2005 and became its president. He was a Lambda Chi Alpha brother and the Orangeman mascot at Syracuse University. A Republican from Virginia, O’Neill ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2007.
In 2011, in an effort to raise their Washington profile, FratPAC and two industry groups -- NIC and the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents sororities -- combined to form the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition. FratPAC today calls itself the largest political action committee focused solely on college students and higher education.
FratPAC’S activity isn’t limited to Congress. It has also lobbied against U.S. Education Department guidelines for investigating sexual assaults on campus.
In 2011, when the Education Department told colleges to require less evidence before responding to allegations of sexual assault, fraternity leaders were among those who met with department officials to complain that the new policy threatened student rights, according to an industry memo reviewed by Bloomberg News. The guidelines remain in place, department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said.
FratPAC also fought the attempt at federal anti-hazing legislation backed by Lianne Kowiak and, as Kowiak thought, Wilson, a Florida Democrat.
Harrison Kowiak, a New Jersey native whose family moved to Florida in his teens, aspired to a career that would mix business with his favorite sport, golf. He’d taken up the game only a few years earlier and had become a scratch golfer and captain of his high school team, his mother said. A college sophomore, he was attending Lenoir-Rhyne University on a golf and academic scholarship. His trophies still line the shelves of his Tampa, Florida, home and a signed photo of professional golfers Ben Crane and Lee Janzen sits on his dresser. His golf glove rests on a cherry-wood table by the front door.
In November 2008, members of the Theta Chi fraternity at Lenoir-Rhyne, a liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, took Harrison to a field at night and told him to traverse a gantlet of brothers in pursuit of their “sacred” rock, said Lianne Kowiak, 53, a former account director for a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary.
As he ran, Harrison, weighing 165 pounds, was beaten by fraternity brothers, some 100 pounds heavier, who were lurking in the darkness, she said. He died of a brain hemorrhage.
At first, fraternity members told Kowiak that Harrison died from injuries in a football game. A Theta Chi official said it was from “a team-building enterprise,” said her husband, Brian Kowiak, 55. Only later, as part of a lawsuit filed in 2009 against Lenoir-Rhyne and Theta Chi, did they learn that the gantlet-running ritual, known as “bulldogging,” had been an initiation tradition for years during Theta Chi’s “Hell Week.”
No one was arrested. Prosecutors found “no basis for criminal charges,” said Eric Farr, a spokesman for the Catawba County District Attorney.
Peter Kendall, a Lenoir-Rhyne vice president, said through a spokesman that the school has “zero tolerance” for hazing. Michael Mayer, executive director of Indianapolis-based Theta Chi, declined to comment. The Kowiaks reached confidential settlements with the school and fraternity, which denied wrongdoing.
After Harrison’s death, “for the first two or three years, we were just zombies,” said Lianne Kowiak. Then, she began advocating against hazing, and spoke to student audiences at Cornell University and elsewhere.
“I’m not going to let my son die in vain,” she said.
She and her husband wanted a federal law that would impose stern penalties for hazing and require disclosure of incidents.
“There are no public records,” Brian Kowiak, a material sciences engineer, said in an interview. “It’s unbelievable that not more is being done, and there’s so much resistance. You hear every month, someone lost their life, someone is taken to the hospital, someone is burned.”
One fraternity leader agrees with the Kowiaks. A federal law would send a message that hazing will be punished, said Juan Guardia, former chair of the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, which comprises 20 fraternities and sororities. “There’s been too many hazing cases.”
One of the most prominent hazing deaths was that of Robert Champion, 26, a drum major in the marching band of Florida A&M University, a historically black college in Tallahassee. According to his parents’ lawsuit, band members in November 2011 severely punched and kicked Champion on a chartered bus following a performance. Fourteen people were charged with crimes including manslaughter. Most of the cases are pending.
Last summer, Lianne Kowiak got in touch with Wilson, who had begun promising federal legislation after Champion’s death. A former elementary school principal who entered Congress in January 2011, Wilson received a modest $1,000 donation from FratPAC that September. Known for wearing flamboyant cowboy hats, the 70-year-old Wilson belongs to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and used to be a regional director.
The self-proclaimed haze buster stated in a 2012 press release that she “played a key role” in winning passage of Florida’s tough anti-hazing law in 2005. However, Adam Hasner, the sponsor of the law and former majority leader of Florida’s House of Representatives, said in an interview that Wilson “was not a participant” in pushing the bill to near-unanimous passage. Hasner, a Republican, said that Wilson’s advocacy of a federal law may have been intended to capitalize on publicity about Champion’s death in Florida. Wilson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A month after Champion’s death, Wilson declared that she’d introduce federal legislation in January 2012. When she missed that deadline, she reiterated her pledge the following May and September.
Besides denying financial aid to students convicted in court or punished by their school for hazing, Wilson proposed creating a federal anti-hazing advisory committee. Hank Nuwer, author of books on hazing, counts 77 hazing deaths since 1990.
At the congresswoman’s invitation, Kowiak and her daughter, Emma, now 15, joined Wilson at the Capitol Hill news conference in September.
“When did it become a tradition to beat each other and torture each other for the purpose of fitting into an institution?” Wilson asked at the news conference. “The time for Congress to address it is now.”
Kowiak wasn’t aware that FratPAC had been working to dissuade the congresswoman against filing the bill. Eight months earlier, FratPAC executive director O’Neill dispatched a confidential memorandum to colleagues saying he would try to “make changes” to her plan.
O’Neill explained in his Jan. 19, 2012, memo that Wilson wanted a federal law because she thought there were too few state prosecutions for hazing, with its “culture of silence that makes it difficult for victims and witnesses to come forward.”
O’Neill disagreed. Wilson’s proposal would unfairly target students on financial aid, who would “face a severe penalty for conduct well below the standard needed for criminal prosecution,” he wrote. University tribunals weighing hazing allegations might not provide students with a lawyer or other legal protections.
Hazing cases belong “at the state level,” he added.
Six states lack anti-hazing laws, and at least seven others have statutes that don’t make it a crime in the absence of injuries, said Cindy Tesch, a University of Maine researcher. There’s no uniform definition of hazing among states or national database of incidents.
The U.S. Education Department has no position on the need for a federal hazing law, spokeswoman Jane Glickman said.
Leaders from FratPAC and the other national groups expressed their concerns to Wilson and her staff in March 2012, Stellhorn, FratPAC’s president, said in telephone interviews. Most of the conversation focused on hazing, said Stellhorn, who attended the meeting.
Afterward, O’Neill maintained “significant” contact with Wilson’s office, Stellhorn said. He put other critics, including college administrators, in contact with Wilson.
“We have been aggressively working with the congressional leader to develop a more favorable approach,” FratPAC and the other groups told their members in a mid-2012 memo. “For the moment, we believe that effort has been successful and federal hazing legislation is not likely to be introduced in 2012.”
As recently as May, fraternities reiterated their opposition to a federal hazing law in an internal document reviewed by Bloomberg News.
“This legislation would result in more problems than it solves,” FratPAC and its two companion groups wrote.
Stellhorn said in an interview that her industry has strong anti-hazing programs and that states should tackle hazing through stringent criminal laws.
“There are already good laws in place,” she said.
Fraternity and sorority leaders disagreed with Wilson’s plan to deny financial aid to students who haze, even if there hasn’t been a judicial finding of wrongdoing, Stellhorn said.
“It’s a huge stretch to say we as an organization fought that legislation,” she said.
Wilson also heard from other opponents to her plan. Florida A&M said it would unfairly target minority students, who rely more heavily on financial aid, according to Tola Thompson, the school’s director of governmental relations. A task force of minority educators and clergy formed after the A&M hazing death, and led by Tallahassee Reverend R.B. Holmes, said community advocacy, and not a federal law, would stop hazing.
On April 25, 2012, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents historically black colleges, told Wilson it was “concerned” that a preliminary draft of the bill “would single out” hazing for harsher penalties than other offenses.
Supporters of anti-hazing legislation reached out to Wilson as well. Susan Lipkins, a New York psychologist and author of a book on hazing, wrote to Wilson after the congresswoman pledged to introduce a bill. Seven years earlier, Lipkins had teamed with a group called Mothers Against School Hazing in calling for a federal anti-hazing law that would include a database of incidents. Lipkins said she couldn’t get a meeting with lawmakers in 2005 and didn’t hear back from Wilson last year.
After the news conference, Kowiak grew increasingly puzzled by Wilson’s inaction. She called Wilson’s office repeatedly and was told the bill remained a priority for the congresswoman. As fall turned to winter, an aide told Kowiak that Wilson was weighing different approaches. Lately, when Kowiak has phoned Wilson’s office, she hasn’t heard back.
Wilson never introduced her anti-hazing bill.
Wilson “apparently reconsidered” filing the anti-hazing bill, Stellhorn said. “From our standpoint, we’ve been successful in having her take a look at some of the wording” of her proposal. “We’ve stood as a voice of reason.”
Wilson’s website continues to feature a photograph of her and the Kowiaks holding the “Hazing Kills” banner. She said she remains committed to filing a bill. Fraternities “didn’t block it,” she said in a brief interview last month. She said she plans to offer a bill when the Robert Champion lawsuit concludes. That may take years, Champion lawyer Christopher Chestnut said.
“There are some hiccups in the bill in my mind as it relates to penalties,” Wilson said, without elaborating.
While she’s pulled back on the anti-hazing proposal, Wilson is a co-sponsor of the bill to give fraternities a tax break to renovate chapter houses. It benefits college students, she said, alluding to the industry’s claim that they can live more cheaply in chapter houses than in dorms.
“Anything to help with tuition,” Wilson said.
Four-and-a-half years after her only son’s death, Lianne Kowiak still finds comfort in talking to his photo in the dining room of her home, and she preserves his bedroom as it looked when he was alive.
“What’s it going to take?” Kowiak asked about Congressional action. “My God, my son’s life was taken away.”