Source: Feds investigating FSU’s handling of Jameis Winston assault allegation

Jameis Winston speaks at the Florida House of Representatives on April 1 when the Florida legislature honored the football team during Florida State Day at the Capitol.

Phil Sears/AP

The federal government has launched an investigation of Florida State University’s handling of the sexual-assault allegation against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, FOX Sports has learned.

If federal investigators conclude that Florida State administrators did not conduct a proper probe, they will work with school officials to make sure one is conducted. While Winston would not face criminal charges because Florida prosecutors have already said there was not enough evidence to charge him, Winston could face discipline from the university, including expulsion.

The federal gender-equity law known as Title IX requires schools to investigate sexual assault cases and take whatever action is appropriate.

The question: whether school administrators "promptly and equitably" investigated the allegation of a Florida State student that she was raped by Winston at an off-campus apartment on Dec. 7, 2012.

Winston, who at the time of the allegation was a highly prized quarterback recruit but had not yet played a down for the Seminoles, was not charged with a crime in the incident. His attorney acknowledged that he had sex with the woman but asserted that it was a consensual encounter.

According to a letter outlining the investigation, which was obtained by FOX Sports, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is going to investigate the allegation involving Winston as well as  "other incidents" – not related to Winston — of alleged sexual assault that were brought to the attention of FSU administrators.

"We’re gratified by these developments," said Baine Kerr, one of the attorneys representing the woman who alleges Winston raped her.

Florida State spokeswoman Browning Brooks said Thursday that university officials are aware of the investigation but can’t comment due to federal student privacy laws.

Title IX is known best as the law that guarantees women equal access to sports as men. However, it is also a powerful tool in the fight against sexual assault. The federal government has nearly 40 active Title IX investigations underway, each of them centered on the handling of sexual assault or sexual harassment cases.

This investigation will focus on how Florida State officials handled the allegation against Winston. Guidelines issued by the Department of Education require schools to conduct their own investigations — regardless of whether criminal charges are filed — and to take whatever action is warranted. Those guidelines suggest that an investigation should take about 60 days.

However, FOX Sports has learned that Winston apparently was not questioned by Florida State administrators until this January — more than a year after he was first named a possible suspect in the case. At that meeting, Winston declined to answer questions, citing the advice of his attorney, according to a source familiar with the case.

Federal investigators will also determine whether policies and procedures at Florida State should be changed. And they can also call for the university to hire additional administrators to ensure Title IX is complied with in future cases.

If the school balks at any of those changes, the Office of Civil Rights has the power to file a lawsuit and seek to withhold federal funds from Florida State. That is a step that has never been taken — but it’s a powerful motivator for college administrators.

At Notre Dame in 2011, for example, school officials revamped their entire process for handling sexual assault allegations in an agreement with the Department of Education. That came after a young woman at a nearby school alleged she was molested by a Notre Dame football player and then killed herself 10 days later.

Kerr, one of the attorneys representing the accuser, has twice handled Title IX cases in which universities were required to fund five-year administrative positions to make sure the law was complied with.

The Title IX investigation is one of two new developments in the Winston case.

DEAN SMITH: 1931-2015

Two Florida State players whose sworn statements played an important part in the decision not to file sexual assault charges against Winston now face possible discipline for their actions on the night in question, FOX Sports has learned.

Chris Casher, a defense end at Florida State and Winston’s roommate at the time of the alleged assault, and Ronald Darby, a defensive back for the Seminoles, signed sworn statements in which they claimed to have watched Winston’s sexual encounter with the woman. Their assertion that the encounter appeared to be consensual was one of the factors that led to the decision not to file criminal charges.

Casher also later told police that he filmed part of the sexual encounter on his phone.

Casher and Darby both have been told by Florida State officials they face possible discipline on allegations of multiple violations of the code of conduct. Both men are accused of what amounts to sexual misconduct and invasion of privacy. And Casher is additionally accused of videotaping someone in a position in which he or she would have expected privacy. If either Casher or Darby is found to have violated the student code of conduct, he could face discipline up to expulsion from Florida State.

The allegation against Winston centered on a report made by a woman to police early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012. She told police she had gone out drinking with friends at a Tallahassee bar called Potbelly’s. While she was there, someone she did not know bought her a shot, and she said from that point on she had broken memories of the incident.

The woman told investigators she ended up in a cab with several people and was taken to an apartment, where she said she was raped. She said her attacker then put her on a scooter and drove her back to the Florida State campus. After consulting a friend, she called police.

At the time she made the report, she told investigators she did not know the identity of her attacker. The following month, however, the woman called police and identified Winston as the suspect after seeing him in a class.

Tallahassee police later put the case on hold, contending that the woman did not want to go forward with criminal charges — an assertion her attorneys repeatedly denied. The woman’s attorneys have also said they are considering a civil suit against Winston. The university would potentially be a defendant in any such suit as well.

In November, news of the allegation came to light, and the case was turned over to State Attorney Willie Meggs, who after conducting his own investigation decided not to file charges. As that investigation played out, Winston led the Seminoles to an undefeated season and ultimately to the BCS national title.

Kerr said he believes Winston’s refusal to talk could open the door for the university to discipline him.

"We just don’t see how the university cannot discipline Winston," he said.

Kevin Vaughan, FOXSports.com Investigative Reporter, is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post. He is the co-author of "The Ledge: An Inspirational Story of Friendship and Survival." Follow him at kevinvaughan.net and on Twitter.