Hikmet Budak

Hikmet Budak

A Montana State University plant scientist and a former graduate student are suing the university and four women grad students, accusing them of leaking to the press a confidential investigation report that hurt his reputation and cost him a new job.

Hikmet Budak and a former grad student filed the lawsuit last week in Gallatin County District Court.

The lawsuit accuses MSU of negligence, violation of privacy and breach of contract, and seeks an unspecified amount of money damages. It contends MSU knew or should have known the women grad students would seek to publish the university’s confidential investigation and didn’t do enough to prevent them from copying the report.

The lawsuit accuses the four graduate students of defamation, portraying Budak in a false and highly offensive manner, sabotaging his new job at an Illinois university and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. It also asks a judge to bar the defendants from further publishing MSU’s investigation report or giving interviews.

MSU spokesman Michael Becker said Thursday the university does not comment on pending litigation.

Budak, a wheat and cereal gene researcher from Turkey who held MSU’s first endowed chair in plant sciences in the College of Agriculture, denied all the allegations brought by students in his lab. The lawsuit describes him as a current employee of the university.

According to the lawsuit, three women grad students complained about Budak’s behavior to MSU last year, at first anonymously and later joining a request for a formal investigation.

MSU’s Title IX office, in charge of gender discrimination issues, conducted the investigation, interviewing 18 witnesses.

Its report concluded that Budak had discriminated against students based on their disabilities, national origin, sex, gender, marriage, family status and religion. Emily Stark, institutional equity director, concluded that he created “a hostile environment that was rampant with harassment.”

Budak denied all the allegations and contends the investigation was “inadequate and flawed.”

The lawsuit also reveals that at the same time the Title IX investigation was under way, MSU was conducting a separate investigation of research misconduct, which Budak learned of in a January 2019 letter from Provost Bob Mokwa. Budak denied those allegations and appealed to the MSU Board of Service.

MSU made more allegations of research misconduct, which Budak vigorously denied and the university ended up retracting, the lawsuit says. Budak’s attorney demanded MSU “mitigate the false allegations” against him and the university took “minimal steps” to do so.

After that, the lawsuit said, “faced with multiple allegations and believing he would not obtain a fair hearing in the pending investigations, Dr. Budak elected to seek other employment at another University.”

Budak and MSU worked out a separation agreement, signed May 7. He withdrew his appeals without admitting liability and denied all allegations. MSU agreed to keep the contents of its investigations confidential.

MSU told him it couldn’t require confidentiality from the complaining witnesses and they could inspect the investigative report, according to the lawsuit, but the university would tell witnesses they faced possible lawsuits if they published the allegations.

The university also agreed to tell anyone checking his employment history only the dates he was employed, job title and salary — not about any investigations.

Then MSU sent copies of the report to the witnesses in such a way that they were able to make copies, the lawsuit alleged.

Within days, it contends, the defendants posted the report on the internet, targeted institutions where he was set to receive an honorary doctorate and a new job, and sent a copy anonymously to the Chronicle, which led to publication by other news organizations. The investigation was first reported in an English newspaper.

Budak contends the investigative report contained “mere allegations” that were false and defamatory, that were never tested at a hearing and that had been disseminated “with malice.” He is seeking punitive damages from the women grad students.

Though Budak’s lawsuit names the four women defendants, they were not named in MSU’s investigative report, which described them only as Witness 3, Witness 9 and so on. The Chronicle has chosen not to name them. The lawsuit identifies the former grad student who joined Budak as a plaintiff only by their initials.

The investigative report alleges that women in the lab were yelled at; called fat, crazy or evil; threatened with firing; criticized for having boyfriends or husbands; touched in ways that made them uncomfortable; controlled and manipulated; asked out; and harassed to the point they considered leaving science or committing suicide.

Budak denied ever touching students, discussing religion, raising his voice, or threatening to kill a student’s career, according to MSU’s investigative report. He admitting having an affair with one woman grad student, who got to attend an out-of-state conference and get her name on research papers. He said he didn’t report the affair to MSU as required by its conflict of interest policy because he was already married.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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