National Post

Saturday, October 09, 1999

Dr. Don Dutton is an expert on domestic violence who has testified in many prominent trials around the world, including the O. J. Simpson case. But for the past five years, his life has been weighed down by the sexual harassment allegations of a former student who badly wanted to go to graduate school.


Dr. Don Dutton, a professor at the University of British Columbia, in the living room of his home -- the scene of an alleged sexual harassment.


Stalked by a harassment charge
Marina Jiménez
National Post

Don Dutton sits barefoot on a couch, one leg tucked under him, a tired, slightly disbelieving look on his face. He shakes his head of thick, white hair, puzzling over why, nearly five years after one of his students filed a complaint of sexual harassment against him, the case remains unresolved. "This is unconscionable. I've seen murder cases done in three weeks," says the University of British Columbia psychology professor. "The case is like a weight you carry around."

Dr. Dutton's dimly lit three storey home is cozy, filled with books and music. A state-of-the-art stereo system dominates his living room. The shelves on one wall are filled with tapes, CDs, records and 45s, everything from Blue Grass and Delta blues to a "big and little" collection of rhythm and blues singers: Big Mama Thornton, Little Walter, Big Bell Broonzy. A statue of Chacmol, the Mayan god of rain, sits on a coffee table. Mexican throw rugs decorate the floor.

The 55-year-old academic -- a self-described "old hippie" -- is an unlikely candidate to face allegations of sexual harassment. He has written several books on family violence, including The Batterer: A Psychological Profile. He has pioneered treatment programs for abusive men and has been an expert witness on domestic abuse in prominent trials around the world, including the O.J. Simpson murder case. In his nearly 30 years counselling victims of violence, and working with young, mostly female graduate students, no one has ever made a complaint.

Except for one woman. In 1994, Fariba Mahmoodi, a former student, claimed Dr. Dutton kissed and fondled her in exchange for a promise to get her into graduate school. The case ended up before a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal last year. Today, 16 months later, Dr. Dutton and Ms. Mahmoodi still await a decision.

"It's like living with a cloud over your head," says Dr. Dutton, in an exclusive interview with the National Post. Ms. Mahmoodi declined to speak publicly about her complaint about Dr. Dutton's conduct.

This isn't the first time the tribunal has faced criticism for undue delays. Last year, for example, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed a sexual harassment complaint against Robin Blencoe, a former NDP politician, because of the lengthy time that had passed without a hearing.

Keith Saddlemyer, the tribunal's new acting chair, acknowledges that a ruling in the Dutton case is long overdue. The tribunal is trying to resolve cases more expeditiously and issue decisions within 90 days, the standard set by the Supreme Court of Canada. There are currently 171 cases before the tribunal and 19 decisions pending. "Sixteen months is out of the ordinary," he says, adding that a decision in the case is expected later this month.

This is the story of one man and what this lengthy backlog of cases has cost him. Dr. Dutton estimates he has spent nearly $80,000 in legal bills. But far more devastating has been the personal cost to him. "When someone comes after me professionally they come after the essence of who I am," he says. "You work in the area I do, you're compromised. Guys would see me on the street and say, 'You're the guy in that sexual-harassment case.' In my hometown I have been put through a public shaming ritual." Today, he is back at UBC, after taking a stress leave, but is considering a move to the United States.

He has seen his Canadian consulting work dry up, and has been targeted by picketers when travelling as a guest lecturer. Last week, the Family Centre in Winnipeg cancelled his workshop on domestic violence, because of the "bad publicity." Last spring, in Grand Rapids, Mich., protestors appeared at a conference of transition home workers and questioned Dr. Dutton about the allegations. Everywhere, it seems, the case stalks him. "I got really cynical for a long time and very negative. I went through a real crisis of the spirit," says Dr. Dutton, who takes solace in his work, his friends and his wife, Mexican-born Marta Aragones.

And he makes this grim observation: If this could happen to him, a man with an impeccable academic record and an interest in women's issues, it could happen to anyone.

It was in Dr. Dutton's home near Kitsilano beach that he met with Ms. Mahmoodi, a 37-year-old Iranian refugee, on Dec. 30, 1994, and again a week later on Jan. 6, 1995. During this period, he was busy preparing for the O.J. Simpson murder case. Ms. Mahmoodi, he says, was keen to discuss a research project.


'IF THIS COULD HAPPEN TO HIM, IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE'


He says he treated her as he had dozens of other graduate students over the years. He offered tea and wine. He lit candles. He played some music. A fire burned in the hearth.

They discussed her school work, her experience as a refugee, her desire to go to graduate school. Dr. Dutton's wife was away at the time.

He offered her dinner, and made a tape of a favourite Armenian CD by Djivan Gasparyan. He recorded a Loreena McKennitt album on the other side. "I do that all the time, give people tapes," says Dr. Dutton.

The tape became a key issue in the case, and was played over and over during the tribunal hearing. It is unclear how, but the tape picked up snippets of their conversation. Dr. Dutton says it's impossible for his stereo system to pick up background conversation without an external microphone. Ms. Mahmoodi says she received the tape this way. At the hearing, one audio expert said the tape of voices and music had been blended and then made into a master tape. Another said it was impossible to conclude how the tape was made.

It contained no evidence of physical contact between the two. There is no sexual conversation either, except for one comment by Dr. Dutton about missing physical contact. He says he was referring to how much he missed his wife.

Dr. Dutton gestures to his stereo unit: "That's the famous stereo," he says. "The Armenian music is about a country that's being put through genocide and they were playing it in the hearing like it was some hot seduction number. Anyone would think I'd go to funerals and pick up people."

The tape was Ms. Mahmoodi's smoking gun. She did not go to authorities right away with her complaint. Instead, in March more than two months after the meetings -- she sent Dr. Dutton what he calls an "extortion letter." She wrote: "I give you chance to save your reputation ... by end of April, if I don't hear from admission office and get admitted [to graduate school] I will do whatever I can do to destroy you professionally." She threatened to use the tape to "show everyone what kind of a show you put on that night to take me to bed .... I will tell everyone about the real you, how you took advantage of me ... abused the power relationship between teacher-student in your favour."

In another letter she said: "It's. amazing to see how in North American society media takes over everything. Everything will blow up in your face. I don't have to tell you how that would undermine your credibility."

Dr. Dutton went straight to his department head. He also alerted UBC's equity office. The office contacted Ms. Mahmoodi, and she then made a formal complaint of sexual harassment.

Problems with Ms. Mahmoodi's credibility began to surface. UBC's psychology department discovered she had forged a letter of reference on her graduate school application. It also came to light that she had received welfare while she was a UBC student, after failing to disclose she had a student loan and was working in-a clothing store. She agreed to repay $4,468 and no charges were laid. Moreover, in the fall of 1995 she had signed up for UBC classes and dropped out the same day, and applied for a student loan using her enrollment of a few hours as proof she was a student.

Dr. Dutton wonders why the B.C. Human Rights Commission recommended the case go to a tribunal hearing -- instead of resolving it through mediation. The commission can't comment on this case, but a spokesperson said that, generally speaking, "he said, she said" cases that can't be resolved without a formal hearing are referred to the tribunal.

The professor says he isn't completely satisfied with UBC's handling of the matter. (Nor is Ms. Mahmoodi; UBC's handling of her case forms part of her human-rights complaint.)

The university brought in an outside expert to conduct an investigation. But after it became bogged down in legal problems, UBC's dean of arts Pat Marchak instead conducted an internal disciplinary investigation. Her December, 1995, report found problems with Ms. Mahmoodi's credibility -- because of the "extortion" letter and questions about the tape's origins.


HIS FORMER STUDENT SENT HIM WHAT HE CALLS AN EXTORTION LETTER


The report cleared Dr. Dutton of sexual harassment, but concluded he lacked discretion and blurred the line between personal and professional relationships. Ms. Marchak found the professor guilty of professional misconduct, because of the sexual implications in the conversation and ambience of his encounters with Ms. Mahmoodi. A letter was put in his employment file.

Dr. Dutton says he disagreed with the report, but didn't initiate a grievance because he was tired of dealing with the matter and with Ms. Mahmoodi, who had become increasingly disruptive.

She began bursting into his lectures, handing out leaflets about him, calling him the devil and screaming so loudly in the hallway that campus security had to remove her.

She left threatening messages on the answer machine in Dr. Dutton's lab, including one to a female graduate student stating: "We know Dr. Dutton has been fucking you. That's why you got into graduate school. Bitch."

She also told as many people as she could about her allegations, including Johnny Cochran, O.J. Simpson's lawyer. Dr. Dutton was an expert witness on the battered-woman syndrome issue in the trial. In May, 1995, she wrote Mr. Cochran a letter: "How can this man be qualified as an expert in determining whether man is abusive when he is abusive himself?"

Dr. Dutton finally decided to go to police. They charged Ms. Mahmoodi with harassment but dropped the charges after she signed a peace bond in August, 1996, agreeing to stay away from Dr. Dutton and to stop talking about her allegations. Dr. Dutton hired a private security guard.

Ms. Mahmoodi's lawyer, Clea Parfitt, has said that Ms. Mahmoodi's fury proves rather than undermines her allegations. "Her actions were the product of anger," she said at the time of the hearing. "There's always going to be a he-said, she-said quality."

Although Ms. Mahmoodi has not bothered Dr. Dutton in months, he wishes he hadn't agreed to the peace bond and that the harassment case had proceeded. "I would have taken it to the max and not backed off. You can't back off with somebody like that," says Dr. Dutton.

The case initially prompted him to question whether he had indeed blurred his professional and personal lives. Perhaps he shouldn't have welcomed Ms. Mahmoodi into his home.

But to Dr. Dutton -- who has no children -- students have always been his extended family. He knows he is a relic from another era, and that his approach does not fit in with the more formal academic environment of the 1990s. "My model is more artistic, based on creativity. Suddenly I'm living with a set of rules that's trying to force me into another model," he says. "Male faculty are treated like evil Svengalis that have to be kept on a short leash and I resent that. Everyone is trying to be so politically correct."

Nevertheless, Dr. Dutton no longer meets the patients he counsels in his home, and tries to keep his students at a distance. But he continues to work with trusted graduate students in his snug living room, away from UBC's sterile hallways. He still makes the dim room brighter with a fire, plays his favourite CDs and offers students herbal tea.

"I've heard faculty members say, 'Never see a female student with the door closed,' I personally find that impossible. I have a lab, people come and go ... to operate at that level of paranoia, I just wouldn't want to work there anymore."

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