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A Name Recently in Lights Falls Under a Shadow

A University of Missouri sports arena is no longer named for a Wal-Mart heiress, who is accused of cheating on most of her course work at USC.

November 25, 2004|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — When they named a University of Missouri sports arena after their daughter, billionaire Wal-Mart heirs Nancy and Bill Laurie pronounced themselves "very proud" parents.

But this week, they found themselves stripping Paige's name from the building -- after accusations that she paid a roommate $20,000 to do most of her course work at the University of Southern California.

Elizabeth Paige Laurie, 22, graduated from USC this year. But her first-semester roommate, Elena Martinez, says Laurie hired her to write her papers, prepare her oral reports and even exchange e-mail with her professors in nearly every class she took over four years.

The Laurie family will not comment, other than to say that the academic record of their only child is a "private matter." But days after the accusations aired Friday on the ABC newsmagazine "20/20," the family agreed -- under mounting pressure from students -- to take Paige's name off the posh basketball arena at the University of Missouri at Columbia. The Lauries paid $25 million in 2001 to help build the arena. That bought them a luxury suite and the right to name the facility Paige Sports Arena.

USC has opened an investigation into the alleged cheating.

"We want all our students to do their own work. That's a very important principle," said Michael Jackson, vice president for student affairs. He would not speculate about possible sanctions Laurie could face if the accusations prove true.

Jackson said that in his 25 years in academia, he had "never heard of possible cheating of this magnitude."

Martinez said this week that she never intended the fraud to go so far. She helped her roommate with a paper during the first semester of their freshman year, she said, and happily pocketed $25 as thanks. Soon, she said, Laurie was asking her to do almost all her schoolwork.

Within months, Martinez dropped out and returned to her home in Banning, unable to afford the USC tuition. She said Laurie sent her books and assignments -- and e-mails critiquing the work she sent back. Laurie even upbraided her for sloppy typing, Martinez said.

"I rarely got a bad grade, but if I did, she'd say, 'This was horrible.' She was pretty picky," Martinez said. "She was a very demanding, expect-the-best boss."

Though Martinez had her own homework to do -- she had started taking classes at Riverside Community College -- she said she continued doing Laurie's assignments and accepted payments that added up to $20,000 over four years.

"I thought about quitting a lot of times, but I didn't know how. I was dealing with someone really powerful," Martinez said.

"In a way, it was nice," she said, "because I was getting the quality education I had wanted."

Martinez wouldn't say what prompted her to come forward with her accusations, or how she got in contact with ABC producers. The only explanation she offered was this: "I'd become uncomfortable with the whole situation."

Martinez has agreed to cooperate with the USC investigation and plans to show the university the stacks of term papers, e-mails and checks that she says prove the fraud.

"I want to make things right," she said.

At the University of Missouri, students said the Lauries had made things right Tuesday when they agreed to relinquish their naming rights to the arena.

The notion of naming the most prominent building on campus for a 22-year-old heiress with no connection to the school had been widely resented. The accusations of cheating angered students even more, said Matt Sokoloff, a sophomore.

"The first day of every class here, they talk about academic integrity," Sokoloff said. "Now we find out that our arena is named after a girl who paid her way through college? It really goes against what we stand for."

The university announced the pending name change in a five-paragraph news release full of praise for the Laurie family, which is widely known as the Mizzou Tigers' biggest -- and richest -- booster.

Nancy Laurie is the daughter of Bud Walton, the brother and business partner of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Forbes magazine recently estimated her fortune at $2.3 billion. Though neither she nor her husband attended the University of Missouri, they have adopted the school as a favorite recipient of their philanthropy.

"We continue to be grateful to the Laurie family for their longtime support," university Chancellor Brady Deaton said.

Even after her name is erased from the arena, Paige Laurie will still have a few connections to Mizzou, thanks to her parents.

The Lauries, who raise horses near the campus in central Missouri, have endowed the E. Paige Laurie Professorship at the university's veterinary school. The holding company they set up to control their ownership of a professional hockey team, the St. Louis Blues, is called Paige Sports Entertainment.

As for Martinez, she's applying to transfer her community college credits to UCLA or Cal State San Bernardino. She has already picked out her major: communications. And she's pretty sure she can handle the work.

"I liked the classes Paige took so much," she said, "I've decided to major in the same thing she did."

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