After UK researcher's suspension, his boss wrote him a recommendation letter

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 3, 2012 

Eric Smart

The former chairman of the University of Kentucky's pediatrics department wrote a recommendation letter for a UK researcher's high school teaching application less than a month after the researcher was suspended from UK for fabricating research data, and a year after he was put on probation for sexual harassment.

Tim Bricker, the former chairman, wrote on UK letterhead to the Education Professional Standards Board on Sept. 7, 2010, that Eric J. Smart "is an outstanding teacher from both the standpoint of content and teaching style with all levels of learners."

The seven-page letter then listed all of Smart's teaching credits between 1996 and 2010.

In the same application package, obtained by the Herald-Leader under the state's Open Records law, Smart said he had not been and was not being reviewed or investigated for any work-related issues.

But on Aug. 20, 2010, UK officials had informed Smart that he was being put on paid leave because UK investigators had found an instance of scientific misconduct and were researching several more.

Both investigations were eventually turned over to federal authorities, who also found numerous fabrications and suspended him from federal research for seven years. Smart resigned from UK in May 2012.

While still on paid leave from UK, Smart had pursued a high school teaching degree. He received a provisional certificate for college faculty in biology and chemistry in 2011, when he first started teaching at Bourbon County High School. He now is a fully certified teacher.

UK officials said last week they didn't know that Smart had applied for another full-time job while on the UK payroll, nor did they know that Bricker had written a letter for Smart.

UK General Counsel William Thro said Monday that UK would have no objection to a letter reciting someone's qualifications.

"Statements about teaching ability, moreover, are a matter of opinion from the author of the letter," Thro said. "Those statements of opinion are not the official position of the university and are not understood as carrying the university's imprimatur. However, although teaching and research are separate and distinct disciplines and success in one does not equate with success in the other, any research misconduct should raise serious questions concerning fitness to teach."

Bricker left UK in late 2011 to go to the University of Texas Health Center in Houston. He has not returned calls for comment.

Bricker also was Smart's boss in 2009, when Smart was put on probation for a year because UK officials found that he had sexually harassed workers in his lab and created a "hostile work environment there." A letter of reprimand was put in his file for one year, but UK officials said they think that after the year was up, Bricker destroyed the letter.

Alicia Snead, interim director of the Education Professional Standards Board, the state's teacher certification authority, would not confirm or deny that the agency is investigating Smart.

On the "character and fitness" portion of the standards' board teaching application, Smart circled "no" to the following questions:

 1. Have you ever had a professional certificate, license, credential, or any document issued to you for practice denied, suspended, revoked or voluntarily suspended?

 2. Are you currently being reviewed or investigated for purposes of such action as stated in No. 1 or is such action pending?

 3. Have you ever been dismissed, resigned, released, or asked to resign/retire or discharged from a professional position or military service for immorality, incompetence, willful neglect of duty, misconduct, or presenting false information toward obtaining the position?

 4. Is any such action as stated in No. 3 pending?

No criminal charges have been filed against Smart in the misconduct case. He has not returned numerous calls requesting comment on the matter.

On Monday, Bourbon County Superintendent Lana Fryman was out of the office for the week and unavailable for comment. However, last week, Fryman said Smart was a good teacher who denied all the charges against him.

Smart was one of UK's top researchers, the director of the Kentucky Pediatric Research Institute who also was awarded the Barnstable Brown Chair in Pediatric Diabetes Research.

In 2009, he was reported for apparently falsifying information on a grant application about research mice that did not exist. Two investigations by UK and one by federal authorities found widespread fabrication of data in applications, articles and progress reports.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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