Richard Willis

Richard Willis, the chairman of the Baylor University Board of Regents from 2012 to 2016, is accused of making racist, lewd and anti-Semitic comments during a 2014 gathering in Mexico.

The president of Baylor University Monday announced the school’s outside counsel is investigating whether then-Board of Regents Chairman Richard Willis used “extremely offensive and hurtful language” during a private conversation in 2014, a year before Baylor’s sexual assault scandal began to unfold.

Willis, through a statement publicized by his lawyer, on Monday vehemently denied making the statements described as racist, lewd and anti-Semitic during a gathering at a private residence in Queretaro, Mexico. Willis and most of the other participants or witnesses to the conversation have been interviewed by Baylor counsel, President Linda Livingstone wrote in a memo, and the investigators have subpoenaed the accuser for a recording of the conversation.

That accuser is Greg Klepper, a Waco businessman who told Baylor attorneys that he personally heard Willis make the comments, according to Klepper’s attorney, Don Riddle. Riddle also represents a second witness, Mexican businessman Alejandro Urdaneta, who Riddle said corroborated Klepper’s account.

Willis served as Baylor’s board chairman from 2012 to 2016 and left the board in 2017. He has been a frequent target of blame for the board’s role in Baylor’s Title IX failures and faced at least one allegation from a former athletic director that he personally directed the athletic director to adjudicate an incident involving a football player.

“I never used the racist, disparaging and anti-Semitic language that Mr. Klepper claims I did,” Willis said in a statement. “And I wouldn’t say those despicable words — not in a casual conversation, not in the privacy of my home, not in anger, not ever.”

Another witness to the conversation that night was Ramiro Peña, a Waco pastor and former Baylor regent who has also been an informal adviser to the Trump administration. Through Willis’ lawyer, Steve McConnico, Peña called the allegations “mean-spirited” and “false.”

Peña said he served as Willis’ interpreter during the meeting and would have remembered such comments voiced in an otherwise unremarkable evening.

“I’ve known Richard for more than a decade,” Peña said. “I’ve stayed in his home and worked closely with him as a fellow Baylor Regent. I’ve traveled with him on multiple occasions and I’ve never known him to be intemperate or profane. I consider Richard to be a man of great character and deep Christian commitment.”

Baylor sent a subpoena demanding Klepper turn over recordings of the conversations, according to Livingstone’s statement. Riddle declined to comment on whether a recording exists.

“The alleged comments are in direct opposition to everything Baylor stands for, and are so egregious that the University immediately launched an investigation when they first came to light through the litigation process a month ago,” Livingstone wrote in the memo on Monday.

She wrote that Baylor’s counsel has traveled to France to speak with a witness to the conversation, referring to Urdaneta. Livingstone said one witness stated Willis never used the language, while another witness said he did.

“In accordance with due process, and out of fairness to everyone involved, we will continue our investigation until all reasonable avenues are exhausted to determine whether the alleged statements were made,” she wrote. “Once the investigation is complete, we will act quickly and decisively if these alleged comments were indeed said.”

Riddle said he and his co-counsel, Waco-area attorney Jon Ker, listened in by phone when Baylor interviewed Urdaneta in France, where the businessman lives. Riddle said Urdaneta confirmed Klepper’s account of the evening.

Baylor spokesman Jason Cook said the school is not in a position to speculate on potential consequences for Willis until the investigation is complete. Willis has been a major donor to Baylor, and the Willis Family Equestrian Center at Baylor is named for him.

Waco attorney Jim Dunnam, who represents 15 women suing Baylor under Title IX, said he has had this information for weeks, but he has opted not to publicize it until Willis could face a deposition.

“Baylor’s statement today is a pathetic attempt to get ahead of yet more horrific conduct by its leadership,” Dunnam said. “Even now, Baylor still cannot even acknowledge the obvious, that in addition to being racist, Mr. Willis’ statements show complete disregard for the value of women.

“Baylor claims it rejects Willis’ comments, but Baylor allowed Willis an unprecedented four terms as Chairman, during which time hundreds of young Baylor students were raped, including 10 Jane Doe plaintiffs,” he said, referring to a Title IX lawsuit with 10 alleged sexual assault victims that is more than two years old.

Riddle said both his clients claim that Willis and Peña were intoxicated while Willis made the comments. The witnesses said Willis boasted about his power over the university and over then-President Ken Starr, disparaging Starr and his wife, Alice. Ken Starr was fired in May 2016 after the board released a 13-page summary of the findings of an investigation into the institutional response to sexual violence at Baylor. At the time of that vote on Starr, Willis was finishing his fourth term as chairman.

“I’m ashamed of Baylor for not finding out the nature of their chairman’s personality,” Riddle said.

In his statement, Willis charged that Klepper’s claims are motivated by a past characterized by failed business dealings. He said Klepper lost a dispute with the general contractor managing the construction of McLane Stadium.

Cook said Klepper sued Baylor over the matter in July 2015, and that lawsuit was dismissed.

Willis also said he declined to invest in Klepper’s business on several occasions, which allegedly angered Klepper. Riddle said he was unfamiliar with any such disputes.

Riddle said he was introduced to Klepper by his former client Tom Hill — an athletics administrator fired amid the scandal.

In regard to the Willis investigation, Livingstone stated that the university will “act quickly and decisively if these alleged comments were indeed said.”

“Hate speech, offensive statements or racist comments in any form — by anyone — will never be tolerated at Baylor University,” Livingstone wrote.

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