February 17, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Former U-M staffer kept Gibbons sex assault allegations in public eye

Douglas Smith said he offered documents about the alleged sexual assault to people who could look into it. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Two years after a University of Michigan football player was arrested but not charged in a sexual assault, Douglas Smith told the board of regents that the university failed the 18-year-old student who was allegedly victimized.

After U-M kicker Brendan Gibbons said he was thinking of “brunette girls” when he kicked the field goal that clinched the Wolverines’ victory in the 2012 Sugar Bowl, Smith, a pathologist-turned-whistle-blower, gave a picture of the alleged victim to President Mary Sue Coleman during another regents meeting.

“I want you to frame it and put it by your bedside so that you can apologize to her every night for your failure to protect her,” Smith told Coleman during the public comment portion of the February 2012 meeting.

Before Gibbons was expelled late last year for violating U-M’s sexual assault policy, Smith was among the loudest voices demanding transparency from the university and justice for the alleged victim of the 2009 assault.

A pathologist for more than two decades whose U-M contract was not renewed, Smith has obtained public documents on several university and Washtenaw County issues and uploaded them to his website, www.washtenawwatchdogs.com.

But the case involving Gibbons has drawn the most attention — and Smith’s efforts have elevated it the public’s eye. Some even believe Smith played a role in keeping the allegations alive.

“He kept this thing from just becoming totally dormant,” said Robert West, senior assistant attorney for the city of Ann Arbor. “He posted stuff on his website. He kind of kept the case in the public eye.”

The case has become a lightning rod for critics who question why it took four years for U-M to discipline Gibbons, who had completed almost all of his football eligibility when he was expelled.

In separate statements, Coleman and head football coach Brady Hoke said the athletic department does not affect how the university handles sexual misconduct investigations. Neither addressed the Gibbons case specifically, nor the timing of his expulsion.

Some say Smith, 60, has an ax to grind because he was unable to keep his job at U-M; others suggest his interpretations are not always spot on.

Andrea Fischer Newman, chairwoman of the U-M Board of Regents, said Smith played no role in keeping the case alive, but would not comment further. Rick Fitzgerald, U-M spokesman, also declined to comment.

Gibbons was expelled from U-M after it said he had violated its student sexual misconduct policy, stemming from an alleged rape in 2009. Last month, the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office said it was not planning to press charges.

Gibbons did not respond to several interview requests.

Smith does not think he played a direct role in Gibbons’ expulsion; instead, he said he offered documents about the alleged incident to people who could look into it further, long before the university severed ties with the football player. When the U-M student newspaper broke the story of Gibbons’ expulsion last month, several news outlets linked to the police reports on Smith’s website.

But this is not the only issue Smith and a small network of other whistle-blowers are interested in at U-M and in Washtenaw County. Smith knows many people wish he would just go away.

Still, someone needs to hold U-M accountable, he said, adding that perhaps change will come under incoming President Mark Schlissel.

“Iconsider this to be part of a bigger problem,” Smith said. “But we really haven’t changed the university yet. Maybe the new (U-M) president will be better; who knows? But I suspect this process of top-down management and secrecy that developed over 20 years, it’s going to take a long time to change.”

Smith is an Iowa City native who earned his medical degree from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in experimental pathology from the University of Minnesota. He was the medical director of laboratories that match tissue for transplant patients at threemajor medical centers before joining the U-M Health System in 2006 as director of the Clinical Histocompatibility Laboratory. But his three-year contract was not renewed in 2009.

Fitzgerald confirmed that Smith worked for U-M from 2006-09, but said he could not comment further on his tenure.

Smith said his contract was not renewed because several people he supervised complained about him after he made several changes in the lab.

During his tenure, Smith said he had permission from U-M to head a similar lab part-time at Baylor University in Texas, which paid him $200,000. With research funding scarce, Smith said U-M could put his Baylor income toward his research on transplant genetics in pigs.

But when he learned his contract would not be renewed, Smith sought to get the $200,000 back from U-M by filing a faculty grievance.

He began submitting freedom of information requests to the university to build a case, which he won. In the process, he stumbled upon what he viewed as accounting irregularities, and he thought they should be made public.

Smith continued to submit FOIA requests and learned about other issues, including thousands of people who got trespassing warnings and were banned from the university for life, and an oversight committee in the U-M Department of Public Safety that hadn’t held elections for the faculty or student positions in years. He began offering documents to local media.

It was a reporter who mentioned the Gibbons case to Smith when they were discussing FOIA strategies and an alleged sexual assault involving another U-M athlete.

Smith spent $200, hundreds of hours and more than two years to get unredacted reports from the Ann Arbor Police Department that detailed the alleged rape involving Gibbons.

After the university adopted an interim policy in 2011 that made student sexual misconduct investigations less driven by a complainant, Smith asked the director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution if he could make a complaint. But he said he never got a response.

In 2012, a year after Smith spoke before the regents for the first time, he said the alleged victim contacted him through Facebook.

The Detroit News made several unsuccessful attempts to reach her. Within more than a dozen exchanges reviewed by The News,she told Smith that she felt he had given her a voice for the first time. Later, however, she told him to stop quoting their conversation on websites, and to give her privacy. The News generally does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Smith understands the reaction of the alleged victim. He also knows people are angry with him about this case and others that suggest wrongdoing at U-M and in the community. But he plans to continue doing the work that has kept him engaged in retirement.

“I am enjoying being active in my community,” Smith said. “When I can effect change, that gives me some satisfaction.”

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Gibbons ((Mark Bialek / Special to the Detroit News))
Whistle-blower Douglas Smith says 'we really haven't changed the ... (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)