The unease grew with each joke. Spotting two Black audience members, the Las Vegas burlesque show emcee told the crowd it was good they were sitting apart to ensure there would be no gang activity.
Seemingly no one near the stage was spared. Seizing upon a group of late-arriving female UCLA spirit squad members seated in the front row, the emcee called them a bunch of lesbians before using more obscene language.
Alan Robbins, the major Bruins athletics booster who had bought tickets for the “Absinthe” show at Caesars Palace on that Thanksgiving night in 2018, watched the group of about 10 spirit squad members exchange incredulous text messages. Finally, less than a half hour into the show, one of the members told Robbins they were leaving and headed back to their hotel.
Having been appalled by the show’s raunchy content, Robbins said, he was relieved because that meant he could also depart.
“It was a horrible show in almost every way,” Robbins, 78, told The Times on Saturday during a telephone interview.
The spirit squad’s experience at the show was the focus of UCLA’s Title IX investigation that led to the dismissal of Mollie Vehling, the group’s longtime director, in May 2019. Vehling sued the school in Los Angeles Superior Court late last month, contending that it mishandled the investigation while not allowing her to properly defend herself.
Robbins, a former state senator based out of Van Nuys who once lost to Tom Bradley in the Los Angeles mayoral race, also absorbed some not-so-friendly fire. Robbins’ alma mater made him part of its Title IX investigation and hired an independent investigative firm to evaluate allegations that he had engaged in a pattern of behavior that was harassing, intimidating and disruptive toward the spirit squad.
While clearing Robbins of sexual harassment, UCLA vice chancellor Michael Beck determined that Robbins did “engage in conduct that was disruptive” to university activities and the spirit squad, including Robbins inviting a minor student to dinner; inviting squad members to the “Absinthe” show that included semi-nude performers; offering to pay tuition for members and flights for them and their families; leering at members in a way they found sexually suggestive; and standing close to and winking at members in a way that made them uncomfortable.
As a result of its findings, the school revoked Robbins’ access to seats within 15 rows of the court at basketball games and field passes at football games until June 30, 2022. Robbins was also forbidden from attending receptions or events where spirit squad members might appear through the same time period or initiating contact with spirit squad members while they were enrolled at UCLA.
Robbins disputed most of the school’s investigative conclusions, acknowledging only that he invited the squad to the “Absinthe” show, had paid for some family travel expenses to accompany their squad member on a trip and had a habit of winking.
“Oh, I wink,” Robbins said. “Lots of times and in lots of circumstances, I wink. There’s nothing sexually suggestive about it.”
Vehling told The Times on Friday school officials were familiar with Robbins’ history of scandals. His political career effectively ended in 1992 when he was convicted as part of a corruption scheme involving racketeering, extortion and tax evasion. In the late 1970s, he was accused — and later acquitted — of having sex with two 16-year-olds he befriended at the state Capitol.
None of that appeared to influence the way Robbins was welcomed by a university that embraced his generosity. Among other things, Robbins purchased lumbar supports and fans for spirit squad members and hosted an annual luggage party in which everyone went home with a new piece of travel gear. Over the years, Robbins estimated, he has given more than $1 million.
“When the spirit squad started seeking financial support, I was one of the first people who was contacted, and I was pleased to do it,” said Robbins, who lives in Coronado. “The men and women of the spirit squad give their time, they don’t get paid and they put in a lot of effort to help the university and help the athletic program.”
Having obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA by age 23, Robbins became one of the youngest practicing attorneys in the state. He was an immediate success as a real estate attorney, developer and investor, amassing a fortune by his mid-20s that would fund his early political campaigns.
Robbins said his first significant involvement with UCLA’s athletic department began in the late 1960s, when he worked with coach John Wooden to arrange off-campus housing for basketball players who didn’t want to live in the dorms. Robbins said Wooden also asked him to make sure female members of the spirit squad didn’t escort high school prospects around campus during recruiting visits.
More recently, Robbins has sought some literal distance from the squad. Before being barred from sitting close to the Pauley Pavilion court, he had requested to be moved away from any front-row seats next to the squad because the constant leaping and cheering blocked his view of the games. Robbins said spirit squad members would also approach to pet his Yorkshire terrier, Bella, the service dog that alerts him if there’s anything that might trigger one of his life-threatening allergies.
“I didn’t move toward them,” Robbins said, alluding to allegations that he had gotten too close to spirit squad members, “they moved toward me.”
Spirit squad members often accompanied Robbins to Las Vegas shows over the years, usually without incident. Robbins picked up the tab for tickets and drinks, ensuring that no one under 21 was allowed to consume alcoholic beverages. The squad favored Cirque du Soleil shows, but the options were limited on the Thanksgiving night in 2018, leading the group to attend “Absinthe.” They quickly learned this show was far less wholesome than the usual Las Vegas fare.
Nevertheless, Robbins said he was “shocked” the outing led to Vehling’s termination.
“She wasn’t a 9-to-5 university employee,” Robbins said. “She cared about the spirit squad and literally gave her life to it.”
As for his role in the controversy and the other allegations he’s faced because of his association with the spirit squad, Robbins said Beck’s characterization that he was disruptive was unfair.
“It’s wrong,” Robbins said. “I mean, it’s his opinion that my being generous to the spirit squad was disruptive.”