Fraternity Lobbyists Really Want To Keep An Anti-Hazing Bill Out Of Congress

How a powerful PAC killed the efforts of a mother who lost her son to violent hazing.

1. This is Harrison Kowiak. In 2008, the Lenoir-Rhyne University sophomore was beaten by a group of Theta Chi fraternity brothers during a hazing ritual in a dark open pasture in North Carolina.

 

Harrison, 100 pounds lighter than some of the brothers, suffered head trauma and died.

From a Tampa Bay Times report on the Kowiak’s family ensuing lawsuit:

[Kowiak and another pledge] were to retrieve “sacred fraternity rocks,” a symbol of initiation to Theta Chi fraternity. The rocks, they were told, were at the end of a dark field. All they had to do was get to them.

But between them and the rocks, the lawsuit says, was a gauntlet of other students dressed in black, who would shove and push and tackle them as they tried to reach their goal.

The brothers called it “bulldogging” — a long-standing tradition during Hell Week, the lawsuit says.

3. Since her son’s death, Lianne Kowiak has spoken out against hazing, even teaming up with a lawmaker who’s advocated against hazing. But it’s been an uphill battle, as Bloomberg News reported this morning.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

In September 2012, Kowiak appeared on Capitol Hill beside Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, who promised to introduce legislation that would punish hazing throughout the country. (Currently, 44 states have hazing laws. In North Carolina, where Harrison died, hazing is a misdemeanor.)

But since that day in September, Kowiak has been steadily shut out by Wilson and her office, which no longer responds to her calls.

From Bloomberg News:

[Kowiak] thought she had a powerful ally in [Wilson], who calls herself the “Haze Buster” and backed Florida’s tough anti-hazing law as a member of the state legislature in 2005.

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.

5. What is FratPAC?

 

The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, created in 2005 by lobbyist and law firm Patton Boggs and supported by companies and people that benefit financially from Greek life. The PAC’s stated goal is to “protect the fraternal experience we offer to our members.”

FratPAC supporters argued to Bloomberg that federal anti-hazing laws aren’t needed, since fraternities, sororities, and universities enforce their own policies.

“There are already good laws in place,” said FratPAC president Cindy Stellhorn, an insurance executive. Stellhorn’s husband sells liability insurance to Greek institutions.

7. So what happened?

JOE SKIPPER / Reuters

Rep. Frederica Wilson in Miami Gardens, Florida, in August 2011.

FratPAC “didn’t block” the anti-hazing bill, Wilson told Bloomberg News, but “there are some hiccups in the bill in my mind as it relates to penalties.”

Those hiccups might have come to light after FratPAC leaders — including one of its founders, Kevin O’Neil — “aggressively” worked to dissuade Wilson from pursuing the bill. It’s unclear what exactly changed Wilson’s mind, but by mid-2012, FratPAC leaders told supporters they believed their “effort has been successful and federal hazing legislation is not likely to be introduced in 2012.”

Meanwhile, Wilson is supporting a bill that would help fraternities renovate their houses — a bill she began co-sponsoring in April 2012, “around the same time FratPAC was lobbying against her hazing proposal,” as Bloomberg’s David Glovin points out. And FratPAC is doing a victory lap.

“We’ve stood as a voice of reason,” Stellhorn said.

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