Cop sues UM-Dearborn, claims retaliation over sex crime probe
Dearborn — A University of Michigan-Dearborn police officer filed a whistleblower lawsuit Tuesday claiming the school retaliated against him for exposing what he claimed was a cover-up of a student's allegation that an instructor had sexually assaulted her.
The 27-page lawsuit filed in federal court further alleges UM has "systematically turned a blind eye to faculty sexual misconduct."
William Elliott Ashford was suspended for 10 days in January for sharing his concerns about the school's handling of the allegation with The Detroit News. The lawsuit claims the retaliation is a violation of the federal Title IX law.
"He tried to bring out the truth about a sexual assault by a professor, and there's been a lashing out against him by the university," Ashford's attorney Deborah Gordon told The News. "There's more than that; there was a threat made that it could've been a lot worse, and that it might be in the future."
University spokesman Kenneth Kettenbeil said in an email late Tuesday afternoon that "the university is not aware of a lawsuit being filed."
The suit names both UM and UM-Dearborn; UM-Dearborn police chief Gary Gorski; and Jeffrey Evans, UM-Dearborn's vice chancellor for business affairs.
On March 1, 2019, a female student went to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti to report that her instructor had sexually assaulted her days earlier.
"The hospital immediately administered a sexual assault examination," the lawsuit said. "A University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Police Officer took the victim’s initial report, which stated that (the instructor) forced the victim to perform oral sex on him in his office in the Science Faculty Building located on UM-Dearborn’s campus.
After the assault, (the instructor) emailed the victim, stating, '[T]he next time you want to work on your grade, you know what we can do.' He changed the victim’s grade in his course from a 'D' to a 'B,'" the suit said.
According to the lawsuit, Timothy Wiley, who was interim chief before Gorski took over in June, coordinated the investigation into the woman's claims. Ashford, who was a Detroit police officer for 22 years and spent two years investigating sex crimes, claims Wiley told him not to take the victim's statement because "it could come back to haunt us in court," the lawsuit says.
Wiley later told Ashford he had dispatched a captain to interview the instructor teacher in his home, according to the suit. Ashford claims he told Wiley that wasn't a good idea, and that such an interview should be conducted in the police station, where it could be recorded.
"Interim Chief Wiley stated that the protocol the investigating officers used did not matter, because the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office already notified the department that they would not bring charges in the case," the lawsuit said.
The lecturer admitted during the interview in his home that he'd had sex with the student, the lawsuit said, adding that UM policy prohibits sex between staff and students, even if it's consensual.
"Days after the assault, (school officials) permitted (the instructor) to resign his position with the University with a clean record," the lawsuit. "Upon information and belief, (the lecturer) is employed at another university."
During a meeting weeks after the alleged sexual assault was reported, Wiley and Deputy Chief James Knittel claimed they'd sent a warrant package to prosecutors, seeking charges against the instructor, the complaint alleges.
But assistant Wayne County prosecutor Maria Miller told The News she didn't get a warrant request until months later, which was submitted by Dearborn police, not the school's police department.
Miller said Tuesday that prosecutors were still reviewing the warrant request.
According to the lawsuit, Ashford contacted Wayne County prosecutors in August to see if a warrant had been submitted, as his bosses allegedly told him. Prosecutors "had not received any warrant package associated with the case," the lawsuit said.
Ashford then checked the school's logbook, which lists all crimes committed on campus, and found an entry that said the case had been referred to prosecutors and closed.
School officials "reported false information about Incident Number 19-047 in the public record log book," the lawsuit said. Ashford "began to doubt whether (school officials) would take any further action."
When Ashford asked his bosses in September about the status of the case, Gorski told him it had been closed and referred to prosecutors for review.
Ashford "explained to ... Gorski that he believed (school officials) were altering their criminal sexual conduct statistics under pressure from ... Evans," the lawsuit said. "Gorski said he would look into the matter and get back to (Ashford) with his findings."
Ashford then went to UM-Dearborn's human resources department to report his suspicions that the incident was being covered up. "Human Resources took no action," the suit said.
"On or around September 11, 2019 ... Gorski told (Ashford) that Deputy Chief Knittel admitted that Incident Number 19-047 had not been submitted to the WCPO, allegedly because the UM-Dearborn Police Department was waiting for the City of Dearborn Police Department to collect DNA from the victim and (the instructor)," the suit said.
"(Ashford) also explained to ... Gorski that according to best practices for the investigation of sex crimes, it was unnecessary to delay submission of the warrant package due to outstanding DNA analysis because (the teacher) had already confessed to engaging in sexual contact with the victim," the lawsuit said.
"(Ashford) further explained that given the serious nature of the case and the 6 month-long delay, the warrant package should have been submitted immediately," the suit said.
"Gorski could not explain why the case status was intentionally falsely reported," according to the lawsuit. "Nor did he have any plausible rationale for why a warrant package had not yet been submitted to the WCPO.
"Even well after the DNA analysis was returned on September 12, 2019, Defendants took no action to move forward on Incident Number 19-047," the lawsuit said.
On Sept. 16, Ashford sent an anonymous email to members of the UM Board of Regents reporting the alleged cover-up. Board members "took no action," the lawsuit said.
The News on Oct. 11 sent a Freedom of Information Act request to UM, seeking the log books. The school sent log books that said the case was still open, and that it was being handled by the school and Dearborn police.
"Shortly after the FOIA request came in, Deputy Chief Knittel met with a Dearborn Police Detective regarding Incident Number 19-047, after which a warrant package regarding Incident Number 19-047 was submitted to the WCPO," the lawsuit said.
"(Ashford) spoke with the news reporter about the matter anonymously, in an attempt to reveal the truth about the mishandling of the case," the suit said.
A day after The News ran a story about Ashford's allegations on Nov. 3, "Gorski told (Ashford), 'We have to have each other’s back,' and that the article could have 'significant negative implications for the University,' the lawsuit claims.
On Nov. 25, Gorski told Ashford he was the subject of an internal investigation, the lawsuit says. Two months later, he was suspended.
The lawsuit says the alleged cover-up is part of a pattern at UM of ignoring sexual assaults and harassment by staff. It cites several allegations of such behavior over the past few years.
Gordon said her client tried to do the right thing.
"Not only did he do nothing wrong, he did something to benefit the public interest and the interests of the students," Gordon said.