Former UCLA spirit squad director sues school saying she was wrongfully terminated
The former longtime director of UCLA’s spirit squad has sued the school’s Title IX office, alleging it botched an investigation that led to her termination after spirit squad members attended a Las Vegas burlesque show with a prominent athletics booster.
The lawsuit, filed late last month in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Mollie Vehling, seeks a repeal of the investigative findings that deemed Vehling was responsible for the sexual harassment of several spirit squad members, even though she was not present at the “Absinthe” show at Caesars Palace. She was dismissed in May 2019.
Vehling, who for 19 years presided over the spirit squad that encompasses the cheerleading squad, dance team and yell crew, argues the school’s Title IX office failed to grant her a fair hearing, failed to proceed in the manner required by law and committed a prejudicial abuse of discretion by reaching a decision that was not supported by the evidence of the investigation.
“Ultimately, I hope to clear my name and really address the concerns about how the Title IX investigation was executed,” Vehling, 44, told The Times on Friday afternoon. “The investigation was just overall inaccurate and wasn’t a reflection of the full story.”
Vehling said she would like her old job back and to once again represent her alma mater. Her lawsuit arose after she had exhausted all of her administrative remedies within the university, which denied any wrongdoing in a statement provided to The Times.
“As an institution, UCLA remains committed to fully supporting all of our students and their well-being is our top priority,” school spokesperson Mary Osako said. “Immediately upon learning of this incident, the university’s Title IX office undertook a thorough investigation. UCLA has robust policies and procedures in place to ensure equity and fairness for all involved. That process ultimately resulted in Mollie Vehling’s dismissal. The university looks forward to responding in detail to her petition in court.”
UCLA has declined to provide any information or documents regarding Vehling to The Times despite repeated public records requests, stating in July 2019 “records containing personnel or other information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy are exempt from disclosure.”
The school’s Title IX investigation centered on the burlesque show that several spirit squad members attended on Thanksgiving 2018 while in Las Vegas to cheer on the men’s basketball team during games against Michigan State and North Carolina.
The previous month, Alan Robbins, a major athletics donor and former state senator who once was charged with but acquitted of having sex with two 16-year-old high school girls in the late 1970s, asked Vehling whether spirit squad members would be interested in attending a show while in Las Vegas.
Ten former USC Song Girls described to The Times a toxic culture within the famed collegiate dance team that included longtime former coach Lori Nelson rebuking women publicly for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives.
Vehling said Friday that Robbins’ past — which also included a 1992 conviction for racketeering, extortion and tax evasion — was known to university officials, but she described him as a passionate, devoted booster who never acted inappropriately around the spirit squad.
“We were aware of what had happened when he was a senator,” Vehling said, “but the athletic department primarily cultivates the relationships and stewards the donors. They 100% welcomed Mr. Robbins to all of the elite-level donor engagement — private parties, the high-level trips that our donors are invited on, Mr. Robbins was always treated and welcomed as he should be.”
The only show that fit the team’s schedule on its Las Vegas trip was a late-night performance of “Absinthe,” which describes itself on the Caesars Palace website as “an intoxicating cocktail of circus, burlesque and vaudeville for a 21st century audience.” Vehling, who did not accompany the team on the trip because she was visiting relatives in San Diego, reviewed the show online and perceived it to be a Cirque du Soleil-type event. She asked the squad members via group text if they wanted to attend.
Attendance at events hosted by donors are never compulsory as part of spirit squad policy, the suit states, and members are routinely told to immediately leave any situation in which they are uncomfortable.
After looking up the show online, some spirit squad members chose not to attend, including Tiphanie McNiff, a part-time coach who accompanied the squad on the trip to Las Vegas. The spirit squad members who wanted to see the show arrived late and were seated in the front row. But they left and returned to their hotel after only 15 to 30 minutes, according to the suit, after the emcee directed several obscene remarks at them.
Vehling asserted in the suit that she was not informed of any student’s distress over the show other than being told by McNiff that they did not like the show and that the obscene remarks were never disclosed to Vehling until UCLA’s final Title IX report that found her responsible for sexual harassment.
“I couldn’t believe that the Title IX investigation would come back and say that I had done anything,” Vehling said Friday. “I was in San Diego with my family for Thanksgiving when the students were at the show, which is a big-time show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in a completely different state, but yet I’m being accused of sexual harassment? It’s shameful, it’s mind-blowing.”
A week after the Las Vegas trip, Vehling was placed on indefinite leave and barred from campus or making contact with any members of the spirit squad. Vehling said she was denied access to her emails, phone and spirit squad files during the investigation despite her requests to retrieve information, only being permitted to review a redacted copy of the evidence through an online portal for three days so that she could respond to the evidence.
Additionally, the suit asserts, Adriana Ovalle-Stevenson, the Title IX investigator involved with the case, did not speak with all of the spirit squad members or five witnesses proposed by Vehling “who could give a well-rounded perspective on the spirit squad’s interaction with donors.” According to the suit, of the four spirit squad members interviewed, none said they were sexually harassed.
Vehling stated in the suit that she actively showed her compliance with the school’s Title IX policy by once reporting alleged sexual harassment directed at a spirit squad dance team member by Josh Rebholz, a UCLA senior athletic director and development officer.
The dance team member, who was the daughter of an unnamed UCLA coach, showed Vehling “explicit text messages” from Rebholz in November 2014 that Vehling reported to her supervisor, Julie Sina, an associate vice chancellor for alumni affairs. The suit states that Sina “instructed Ms. Vehling to never speak about it again.”
According to two sources close to the athletic department, UCLA issued Rebholz a letter of reprimand but cleared him of any wrongdoing that would require more serious punishment.
Vehling said in the suit that she reported to Sina in June 2018 other instances of inappropriate interactions involving a major donor besides Robbins with UCLA students who were not spirit squad members.
Trevor Bauer is on a second seven-day administrative leave from the Dodgers after allegations of sexual assault. What happens next?
But after she was placed on leave in November 2018, Vehling stated Sina falsely claimed she had verbally directed Vehling six months earlier to stop all contact between Robbins, the former state senator, and the spirit squad, even though Robbins had no reported history of inappropriate behavior and was known by Sina and other school officials to have interacted with spirit squad members at football tailgates and men’s basketball parties in the fall of 2018.
UCLA’s Title IX office retained an independent investigative firm to evaluate claims Robbins had been responsible for sexually harassing spirit squad members. Michael J. Beck, UCLA’s administrative vice chancellor, cleared Robbins of any sexual harassment in September 2019 but wrote he did “engage in conduct that was disruptive to university activities and programs involving the UCLA student spirit squad.”
As a result, Beck revoked Robbins’ access to seats within 15 rows of the spirit squad at basketball games and barred him from receiving field passes at football games until June 30, 2022. Robbins was also forbidden from attending receptions or events where spirit squad members might appear through the same time period or initiating contact with spirit squad members while they were enrolled at UCLA.
Beck later stated Vehling’s termination should be upheld based on her “misconduct and failure to maintain appropriate work performance standards” after allowing the spirit squad members to attend the burlesque show.
“It appears that Ms. Vehling either did not look at the website for Absinthe herself, or failed to undertake reasonable due diligence before assessing its appropriateness for students who believed they were compelled to attend the show as part of their official duties as spirit squad members,” Beck wrote in a May 2020 letter to campus human resources. “Had she truly accessed [sic] the appropriateness of the show, she should have come to the conclusion that a ‘burlesque’ show hosted by the ‘plain filthy’ in an ‘immersive adult playground’ with ‘sexy performers’ would be inappropriate for a spirit squad sanctioned activity especially when unsupervised and hosted by Mr. Robbins, about whom members already had expressed concerns.”
Vehling contended Friday no one on the team had ever raised any concerns about Robbins and she was the victim of a double standard.
“For UCLA to tell Mr. Robbins there are no accusations that are going to be held against you regarding the event,” Vehling said, “but [also say] ‘Molly you’re fired for the same accusations’ — you can’t have it both ways.”
Vehling said she hasn’t been back to campus since her dismissal, needing special permission from the university just to contact her parents and her sister while on leave because they are alumni. She’s taken a job as director of California Strong, a charity based in Southern California, but would love to return to the place she’s called home since walking on campus as a freshman in 1995.
“It’s been exceptionally heartbreaking to go through this and I just really desperately want to clear my name, for these accusations not to be connected to me and my family,” Vehling said. “I just really feel that UCLA’s Title IX investigations and the entire process needs to be very closely examined because it’s inappropriately being executed at this time.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.