February 11, 2011

Colby professor resigns amid secret-camera flap

Affidavit spins tale of photos snapped in women’s bathroom

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- A tenured economics professor at Colby College was forced to resign late last month after allegations surfaced that he set up a hidden surveillance camera to take photos of female students in a bathroom while chaperoning an international student trip, according to court documents.

Philip H. Brown, an associate professor of economics who has taught at Colby since 2003, has not been charged and an investigation by the Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit is ongoing. Brown's resignation was confirmed by the college.

Investigators executed a search warrant on his campus apartment Jan. 27 and seized his college-owned computer and other electronic devices, according to an affidavit filed in Kennebec County District Court in Augusta.

But, "as the investigation stands, we don't have a crime," Detective David Armstrong, of the computer crimes unit, said Thursday.

Armstrong, who wrote the affidavit in support of the search warrant, said that while the alleged offense took place in China, "there was some concern that there may be some issues back home and that's what we based our search warrant on, but we haven't found any evidence of that yet. We don't have a crime you can prosecute in this country."

Colby College President William "Bro" Adams wrote to students and employees on Jan. 28 that Brown had resigned after college officials had indicated they were prepared to fire him over "violation of student privacy." The message from Adams did not specifically outline the violation.

"The resignation at Colby's request is related to violation of student privacy," Adams wrote. "This matter has prompted an investigation by law enforcement authorities, and the college is cooperating with that investigation."

Brown's trip to China with a group of students was part of the college's "Jan Plan," a time when students undertake different projects outside of regular classes. According to a description posted on the college's website, Brown's "Made in China" course from Jan. 3 to Jan. 27 was intended to examine the economic, political, and social issues with China's rapid growth.

As part of the China trip, students wrote blog posts about their experiences that were posted on the college website, and the group used a single laptop computer provided by Brown. The last such blog post was made on Jan. 24.

Brown couldn't be reached for comment.

Colby has since removed Brown's directory information, and the "Made in China" blog posts, from its website.

'I have done this before'

According to the affidavit filed by Armstrong, the allegations surfaced on Jan. 22 when two students were writing a blog post and accidentally deleted the entry. The students attempted to retrieve the blog post from the computer's trash bin "and found disturbing images of a fellow student."

The student in the photo, a female, was "nude from the waist down."

On Jan. 24, Armstrong received a complaint from the college's attorney concerning the student trip to China, which included four female students.

According to the lawyer, Jerry Crouter, "students on the trip had reported the discovery of images on a computer apparently taken by a hidden surveillance camera placed in the female students' bathroom in the hotel they were staying in while in China."

It's unclear where in China the students were staying, because they traveled to different locations. The latest available blog entry online, posted Jan. 17, indicated that the students were staying in Jiayuguan, in north-central China, about 1,200 miles west of the capital, Beijing.

The next day, Jan. 25, the student in the photo spoke with Armstrong by phone and said that Brown -- prior to the trip and after a class at Colby -- had asked if she would "agree to be in charge of the medicine box" during the trip.

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