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Tales from the iron triangle

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This is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism that unravels multiple interlocking threads of misconduct. First, a former George Mason professor who was a (lavishly) paid corporate shill posing as a scholar, sometimes revealing his blatant conflicts of interest and sometimes not:

Wright used research papers, blogs and his legal expertise to defend U.S. tech corporations from federal antitrust regulators. After more than 130 countries set up their own antitrust agencies, Wright and the university found new ways to benefit from the rise of foreign regulators.

Wright became executive director of the university’s Global Antitrust Institute in 2015 and organized all-expenses-paid training seminars in such locales as Napa Valley in California, and Maui, Hawaii. From 2016 through 2023, more than 400 foreign officials and judges attended the seminars, which promoted a business-friendly view of antitrust matters. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch spoke at a seminar luncheon in 2019.

Flights, meals and accommodations were covered largely by contributions from companies that stood to benefit from the training. The university wasn’t required by campus rules to report donation amounts and kept them secret.

The Wall Street Journal found that from 2018 to the end of last year, Google and Amazon each donated a $1 million to the Global Antitrust Institute, a subsidiary of the Law and Economics Center, which funded Wright’s research. Facebook parent Meta contributed $675,000 from 2018 through 2020. Qualcomm pledged $2.9 million in 2017.

Some university professors questioned whether the companies might be illegally lobbying overseas officials by donating large sums to the institute, which used some of the money to host the officials at fancy vacation spots. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits U.S. companies from offering things of value to bribe foreign officials.

Members of the school’s gift-acceptance committee wanted to review the issue in 2020. They learned the institute allowed companies to keep contribution figures secret. Its website lists Google, Facebook, Amazon, Qualcomm and Allergan’s foundation as donors but doesn’t say how much they gave. 

“It was an obvious conflict of interest,” said Chris Kennedy, an economics professor on the committee. “These are companies that will have matters before the officials on these trips.”

Wright also used his influence to get his formers students placed at the FTC. Some of them he started having extramarital sexual relationships with while they were his students in law school:

Wright turned at least one of the Global Antitrust Institute events into a romantic getaway.

He hosted Elyse Dorsey in January 2019 at a hotel in the Florida Keys during an institute training seminar. Wright had initiated a sexual relationship with her when she was a law student. He later helped her get jobs at Wilson Sonsini, the FTC and the Justice Department.

Four months after Dorsey’s Florida trip, Edwards and Wright were in Lisbon, where Wright had organized a weeklong training seminar. While Wright lectured foreign officials at the Four Seasons hotel, Edwards posted photos of herself on social media. 

A Wilson Sonsini associate saw the posts and alerted Dorsey, who had believed her affair with Wright was exclusive. Dorsey texted him in Lisbon.

“You know who’s apparently not far away from you,” she wrote. “Lindsey.”

“Really weird,” Wright replied, saying it was a coincidence.

“That’s some bulls—,” Dorsey said

Wright for years conducted affairs with students, often more than one at a time. Former George Mason University law-school students said he sent friendly emails and messages to women he found attractive and, depending on their response, pursued them, according to court filings.  

“He was a very likable professor, engaging and young,” said Brandy Wagstaff, a lawyer at the Justice Department.

In 2005, Wagstaff had been a first-year law student in Wright’s class. They had an affair the following year and sometimes had sex in his campus office. Looking back, she said, “it is just shocking to me that those that shared office space with him would be clueless.”

Wagstaff had been an adjunct professor at the George Mason University law school for about six years when she heard from women on campus that Wright was still having affairs with students.

In 2017, Wagstaff reported what she heard to university officials. A campus investigator asked her to provide names. The students told Wagstaff they didn’t feel comfortable identifying their classmates to university authorities, she said, and the matter was dropped. 

He has admitted to having the affairs, so the only question seems to be whether the quid pro quos were explicit or implicit. He also allegedly tried to use job openings to pressure people into sex:

In early 2021, Christa Laser, a law professor at Cleveland State University, responded to a job posting at George Mason University’s law school. She sent an inquiry to Wright, who was in charge of hiring.

Wright said he was free to meet over dinner the next night at the Liberty Tavern, a restaurant near campus. Over tapas at a high-top table by the bar, Wright told her the school might have the ideal opening for her, Laser said. The law-school dean always followed his recommendations, she recalled Wright saying.

After dinner, Wright walked Laser to her car, she said, and hugged her “for an uncomfortably long time.”

Laser emailed Wright that night to thank him for meeting. He replied from his personal email: “I hope this doesn’t come off as overly forward—but I really enjoyed dinner and talking with you and thought maybe you might be interested in making next time a ‘date’?”

Laser declined the offer. Wright later told Laser he didn’t have a job for her. Laser said she complained to the university’s human-resources department about Wright’s behavior. She said she spoke with a campus investigator for an hour on a video call. She never heard back.

Wright resigned from ASSOL, and most of his corporate benefactors cut ties with him after the accusations surfaced. He remains an object lesson both of the problem of corporations funding academic positions and why professors should not be permitted to have sexual relationships with students they have any kind of supervisory relationship with.

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