Influential Lobbyists Jump Into The Middle Of McCaskill Sexual Assault Survey

Senate Consumer Protection subcommittee Chair Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., holds up a document as she questions General Moto
Senate Consumer Protection subcommittee Chair Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., holds up a document as she questions General Motors CEO Mary Barra on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 2, 2014, during the subcommittee's hearing on General Motors. McCaskill said the new GM, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, had ample time to recall cars equipped with a faulty ignition switch that is linked to at least 13 deaths. GM began recalling the cars this February. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

An influential higher education lobbying group is interfering with efforts to collect information about how colleges handle sexual assault cases, says the office for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

McCaskill, as chair of the Senate Subcomittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, sent out an extensive survey last month to 450 colleges and universities asking for feedback on campus sexual assault. McCaskill has paid close attention to college sexual assault this year, conducting site visits and round-table discussions in addition to surveying schools as she prepares to file legislation on the issue.

However, McCaskill's office said, the American Council for Education has retained a private law firm to conduct a webinar for member institutions, cautioning them on whether and how they should respond to the senator's sexual assault survey.

The ACE is a prominent higher education lobbying group representing both public and private colleges as well as accreditors. With 1,800 member institutions, the group touts itself as the nation's most "influential higher education association."

"I have now received reports from several representatives of educational institutions that the webinar cautioned institutions regarding whether and how they would respond to the survey," McCaskill wrote in a letter to ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. "I have also heard reports that this webinar has had a chilling effect on institutions' participation in the survey."

McCaskill emphasized that she did not plan to share any school's individual responses with the public, or even disclose which schools participated in the survey, in an effort to get more honest answers.

"Given these efforts, I am extremely troubled by the fact that the American Council on Education provided counsel to its member institutions which may have had the opposite effect," she wrote.

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the ACE, said the webinar was meant to be purely "educational" and that it was held in response to questions from member institutions about how to respond to McCaskill's survey. The law firm conducting the webinar has expertise in congressional investigations, Meloy said.

"No one was discouraged from responding to the survey," Meloy told HuffPost. "No specific advice was given on how to answer the questions."

McCaskill asked that copies of the webinar and any additional written materials be provided to her office no later than May 16, along with the names of institutions participating in the webinar, so that she could "assess the damage to the survey." Meloy said that request was "uncalled for."

"The concept [that] they're asking for these things is contrary to the idea that we're a membership organization and that we provide services to the members," Meloy said.

McCaskill's office said it has already started to receive completed surveys, and that it expects it will have a statistically valid sample to draw from. Representatives for the senator said that while the ACE's involvement may not corrupt the survey, it was still important that schools participate without interference.

Last month, the ACE balked at a proposal from the White House task force on college sexual assault that every university in the country be required to participate in a campus climate survey. Such a survey has long been proposed by experts and campus safety advocates, and similar surveys are already in place in the military and at the University of New Hampshire.

Meloy said she believes colleges are taking the issue seriously, and dismissed the idea that schools might be trying to hide anything. Rather, she said, it's just that "each survey takes time and attention in responding."

"There's so much information out there," Meloy said. "I don't think there's hesitation about a little bit more coming out."