Though a career-defining work opportunity kept her out of the classroom, the daughter of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin insists she earned her master's degree from West Virginia University fairly, earning work-experience credit for her final four courses in 1998.
For the first time since the validity of her executive master's of business administration degree was drawn into question last fall by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Heather Bresch yesterday defended herself and her politically influential friends and family from allegations that they pulled strings to award her a degree she didn't earn.
"There are plenty of suggestions that powerful forces were at work, orchestrating all of this on my behalf in October of '07 to secure my degree. Nothing could be further from the truth," Ms. Bresch told The Associated Press at Mylan Inc. headquarters in Cecil, Washington County, where Ms. Bresch is chief operating officer.
"I secured my degree in '98 when my father wasn't governor, when [Mylan chairman] Mike Puskar hadn't given millions and Mike Garrison wasn't [WVU] president."
A panel appointed by WVU and featuring independent educators from New York, Missouri and Pennsylvania has been investigating how discrepancies about Ms. Bresch's degree were handled by school administrators in October. It has yet to release its conclusions.
The appointment of the panel was sparked by a Dec. 21 story by the Post-Gazette that raised questions about how the university awarded the degree to Ms. Bresch, despite records that showed she had completed only about half of the credits needed to earn the degree.
Ms. Bresch has repeatedly declined to comment to the Post-Gazette about questions surrounding her degree. She could not be reached for comment last night.
"What administrative processes and what errors have made that issue more complex are not in my control," Ms. Bresch, a 16-year employee of Mylan, told the AP.
Ms. Bresch said she testified before the investigating panel Sunday, laying out her actions a decade ago and then last fall after learning the university had been unable to verify her credentials for a newspaper inquiry triggered by her promotion to COO.
She said she cleared the work-experience-for-credit arrangement with Paul Speaker, the former head of WVU's EMBA program.
Mr. Speaker also testified before the panel. He declined to discuss Ms. Bresch in particular last night, citing federal privacy laws that protect student records.
"I need to wait and see what is publicly revealed by the university," he said. "I would love to be able to address things directly, but I'm kind of hampered by that."
However, he said he cannot recall any instance in the history of the EMBA program when work experience substituted for course work.
"If you look through the annals of anything at the university, you will not find a single course for which experience would replace the course," he said. "If you were a CPA, you had to take our accounting. If you were an attorney, you had to take our business law. And it was very strict."
Students worked in teams, he said, "and we felt the obligation of the individual to the team and to the whole class was very important."
Mylan CEO Robert J. Coury told the AP that Ms. Bresch's position is secure regardless of the WVU investigation because her work speaks for itself. She helped the company grow from one with $100 million in sales and 300 employees to one with more than $5 billion in sales and 11,000 employees.
Nor does Ms. Bresch apologize for her connections: Mr. Puskar is a benefactor of both her father and WVU, donating $20 million to the school in 2003. She went to high school and college and served on the WVU Board of Governors with Mr. Garrison, who did some lobbying for Mylan in his previous political career.
She says it's laughable to suggest that 10 years ago, she could have predicted the confluence of events surrounding her degree.
Ms. Bresch says she even had a hand in creating the EMBA program, meeting with former WVU President Neil Bucklew around 1993 to suggest that a part-time curriculum be created in Morgantown, W.Va., for busy executives like herself.
After a 1994 fund-raising event by Mylan and other companies, that program was up and running. In its second year in 1996, Ms. Bresch became a student -- though she concedes it wasn't strictly by the book.
Though she had intended to enroll, Ms. Bresch said she had just finished work on her father's first, unsuccessful campaign for governor and had failed to take the graduate school admission test or submit all the required paperwork.
Still, she said Mr. Speaker told her she was welcome to enroll. Ms. Bresch said she seized the opportunity and was "fully enrolled and actively participating" from the fall of 1996 through the spring of 1998.
In the summer of 1998, Mylan became embroiled in a complex corporate lawsuit involving a $50 million investment in a California firm called VivoRx. Ms. Bresch was given what she considered a career-defining chance to represent Mylan for the 18 months it ultimately took to complete the case. At the time, she says she was 10 credits shy of completing her degree.
She says she and a co-worker who had just graduated the EMBA program met with Mr. Speaker that September to discuss if she could get work-experience credit for the case.
"This meeting I had with Mr. Speaker was a defining moment in my EMBA program because I was near completion, and I was asked to take on this opportunity. This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.
Ms. Bresch recalls leaving that meeting with assurances the work would satisfy the final credits, and when she went briefly to a graduation ceremony in December, her name was in the program.
She did not pick up a diploma, she said, just as she had never collected her undergraduate diploma in political science and international studies.