Former University of Kentucky researcher once disciplined for sexual harassment

Eric Smart had been the Barnstable Brown Chair in Pediatric Diabetes Research at the University of Kentucky. He resigned from UK earlier in 2012 and has been censured for scientific misconduct.
Eric Smart had been the Barnstable Brown Chair in Pediatric Diabetes Research at the University of Kentucky. He resigned from UK earlier in 2012 and has been censured for scientific misconduct. Photo provided

Eric Smart, the former University of Kentucky researcher who resigned and was censured for scientific misconduct earlier this year, was disciplined for sexual harassment of his employees three years ago.

The sexual harassment allegations led to a year of probation for Smart in 2009, but he stayed on the payroll until 2012, when two internal investigations and one by federal authorities concluded that he had repeatedly fabricated scientific evidence.

Smart is now a chemistry teacher at Bourbon County High School, where he was hired in fall 2011 while on paid leave from UK.

Smart's alleged harassment was mostly reserved for female workers in his lab and included "teasing, pushing, slapping, tickling, touching, and playing in the lab, sometimes ending in wrestling on the floor or someone sitting on another person," according to a February 2009 letter from Patty Bender, UK's assistant vice president for equal opportunity, to Tim Bricker, chairman of UK's Department of Pediatrics, who was Smart's boss at the time.

"Ice fights and ice being put down clothing was described," Bender wrote. "These activities were reported to be initiated by Dr. Smart and may start playfully but were described as ending violently with someone on the floor, under the furniture, and on occasion partially undressed/exposed due to the wrestling."

The letter was obtained by the Herald-Leader under the state's Open Records Act. Smart did not return phone messages left Thursday at his home and at Bourbon County High School.

Bourbon Superintendent Lana Fryman said Thursday that she was unaware of the harassment allegations because only criminal issues turn up in routine background checks.

"That doesn't show up anywhere in his background," she said.

The Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board, which certifies school teachers, investigates only allegations of misconduct that occur in a school district, interim director Alicia Snead said.

"There would have to be a new accusation," she said.

According to the documents, Smart was put on probation for a year — which meant all his decisions, such as hiring, had to be overseen by his department — and was ordered to seek psychiatric evaluation.

In addition, a reprimand was supposed to be put in Smart's personnel file; however, that reprimand was not in the file obtained by the Herald-Leader under a separate open-records request.

UK general counsel Bill Thro said Thursday that he thinks Bricker removed the reprimand from Smart's file at the end of the one-year probation.

"The letter was removed at the discretion of the department chair, but remedial actions were taken against Dr. Smart for the sexual harassment," Thro said.

The letter could not be found in any other files at UK, he said.

Bricker, now chairman of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, could not be reached Thursday for comment.

In a separate letter summarizing the findings of her harassment investigation, Bender said Smart did not deny the alleged behavior.

"He attempted to justify it as what you might expect between siblings and indicated that anyone who did not want to participate could say 'No' without fear of consequence," she wrote.

In addition, Bender said, Smart had trouble controlling his anger and created a hostile work environment that had been going on for a long time without being reported.

The reprimand for sexual harassment was sent on Feb. 20, 2009. Thro said Jay Perman, then dean of the College of Medicine, received the first allegation of Smart's scientific misconduct on April 14, 2009.

The first scientific misconduct investigation took nearly a year, during which time Smart apparently worked toward his teacher certification, according to his file. In August 2010, he was placed on leave and got special assignments to work on at home while being paid his full salary of $164,000.

Thro said he did not know what work Smart did from his home, but he said he assumed it was clerical.

Fryman said Monday she did not know Smart was still employed by UK at the time he was hired by the Bourbon school district. UK officials did not know Smart was hired either, and they wouldn't have been happy.

"It's against our custom and practice," Thro said. "Our faculty do act as consultants, they do pursue limited outside employment, but we would not tolerate having someone with a full-time job."

Thro said Bourbon County officials did not talk to the UK human resources office, and if they had, they would have been informed that he was a full-time UK employee. However, because the federal investigation was open in the fall of 2011, UK's human resources department would not have been able to talk about the scientific misconduct inquiry.

At UK, Smart had been a rising star, bringing in $8 million in federal grants starting in 2000. He was the Barnstable Brown Chair in Pediatric Diabetes Research and director of the Kentucky Pediatric Research Institute until being put on leave in 2010.

Smart oversaw 13 employees engaged in nutrition research.

Two investigations at UK found that he fabricated data; the federal Office of Research Integrity finished its investigation in October and debarred Smart from conducting any federal research for the next seven years.

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