Subpoena issued in Pitt bomb threat case
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A transgendered couple from Cambria County with ties to the University of Pittsburgh have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh that is investigating the rash of bomb threats at Pitt.
The couple, Seamus Johnston, 22, and Katherine Anne McCloskey, 56, said FBI agents visited their apartment in Jackson Township, outside of Johnstown, on Wednesday to discuss the bomb threats and served them with subpoenas Thursday. They were ordered to appear Tuesday before a grand jury.
"I asked if we were persons of interest and they nodded their heads," said Ms. McCloskey, who was born as a man but has been living as a woman for a year.
"I told them during the first interview and again on Thursday I was not involved in this and don't know anybody involved in it and I don't know much about it other than what I see in the student newspaper," said Mr. Johnston, who was born a woman but identifies as a man.
Until recently, Mr. Johnston was a junior honors student at Pitt's Johnstown campus, majoring in computer science.
Mr. Johnston, who has been undergoing hormone treatments for 10 months, said the FBI agents told him he was being investigated because he had been expelled in January from Pitt-Johnstown over a clash with university authorities over which locker room he was allowed to use.
Ms. McCloskey, a Pitt-Johnstown alumnus, said she assumes Pitt authorities provided the couple's names to FBI agents as individuals who had a dispute with the university. It is unclear whether other people with disputes with the university are being interviewed by FBI agents or have been subpoenaed.
The U.S. attorney's office on Friday declined to comment on any aspect of the investigation.
In a statement released Wednesday, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's said information from Pitt students and community members had helped investigators "focus on potential suspects" behind the series of three-dozen bomb threats, some involving multiple buildings, directed at the university since Feb. 13.
Mr. Johnston's clashes with authorities at Pitt-Johnstown have became something of a cause celebre for the transgendered community at Pitt, and the dispute has been publicized both within and outside the university.
He was arrested by Pitt police on the Johnstown campus in November and brought up on university disciplinary charges for repeatedly using the men's locker room there despite being told by university officials not to do so. Officials had offered him the use of a private locker room, but he declined.
He was expelled from the university in January and lost an appeal for reinstatement but said Friday he plans to file another appeal to Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.
On March 21, a Johnstown district judge held Mr. Johnston for court on misdemeanor charges of indecent exposure, defiant trespass and disorderly conduct in the campus incident. A trial date has not been set.
While he is seeking university reinstatement and fighting the criminal charges, the couple have been vocal in their plans to file a discrimination suit against the university, and they plan to meet Monday with the city's Human Relations Commission.
Mr. Johnston said he is shocked at how his life has changed so dramatically in a few months.
"I find myself completely bewildered," he said. " I was on the dean's list, a high-honor student who loved his course of study and got along with my professors, and to have all of that taken away because I'm transgendered seems ridiculous. And on top of that, now the FBI comes and investigates me," he said.
"I wasn't involved in any of these bomb threats. Personally, I feel the fact they continue to investigate me is nothing short of retaliatory on the university's part. I feel they are wasting valuable resources in finding whoever is responsible for threatening the safety of my friends at main campus."
Ms. McCloskey said agents asked to examine the couple's computers "to check to see if they had been connected to a server in foreign country."
Most of the bomb threats have been emailed to reporters in Pittsburgh using an anonymous remailer that bounces off servers in other countries, making it virtually impossible to trace their origin.
Mr. Johnston said that for privacy reasons the couple did not agree to voluntarily surrender their computers -- a desktop and a laptop -- because they contain information about the 50 members of the Social Democrats USA for which he acts as secretary and Ms. McCloskey serves as acting director. Moreover, Mr. Johnston said, information about their pending lawsuit against Pitt is contained on the computers.
"Since I wasn't involved in any of this to begin with, there's nothing for them to find, and I'm not holding up their investigation or making anyone less safe by wanting to talk to an attorney first," he said.
Nevertheless, he said they would bring the computers with them to the grand jury on Tuesday as instructed by the FBI agents, who said they would obtain a search warrant for the computers by then.
Mr. Johnston's clashes with Pitt came to the attention of the anti-discriminatory policies committee of Pitt's University Senate, which already was researching transgender issues. The committee asked him to speak before the panel in January.
The University Times, an independent Pitt publication, said Mr. Johnston told the committee that the university required no proof of gender when he applied to the university and took his SAT and ACT exams. In those instances, he marked his gender as female.
"They believed me then, but now they want proof" in the form of an amended birth certificate that requires a surgeon's confirmation that sexual reassignment surgery had been completed, the newspaper quoted him as saying.
In February, the committee passed a resolution recommending that individuals at Pitt be allowed to use restroom facilities consistent with the gender they identify themselves as being, rather than what's on their birth certificate.
But the committee was notified in March that Pitt's administration already had a different position. As spokesman Robert Hill described it Friday, "Pitt's long-standing practice is to permit males and females who identify or express themselves as the opposite gender to use the restroom and locker room facilities of the gender with which they identify, if their birth certificates indicate that gender."
However, committee members knew of no such written policy or practice, said Jane Feuer, committee chair and professor of English and Film Studies. "The committee members felt that we were not listened to," she said.
Mr. Hill said Friday a campus panel has been asked to examine the matter.
First Published April 14, 2012 4:19 pm