One way or another, it appears there will be some sort of investigation into claims of sexual assault lodged against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Christine Blasey Ford, a 51-year-old California psychology professor, and her attorneys have spent the week going back and forth with the Senate Judiciary Committee, reportedly indicating Thursday that she's open to testifying about the three-decades-old incident after initially requesting there first be an FBI investigation into her claims.
So the question now is: If Ford testifies to senators about her allegations, what are the best practices for getting to the truth?
Ford told the Washington Post that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her during a house party in the early 1980s, when they were both attending prep schools in Maryland. Ford says Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, groped her, attempted to pull off her clothes, and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. The alleged attack, she said, ended when Kavanaugh's friend Mark Judge jumped on top of them. Kavanaugh has denied the incident occurred, as has Judge.
Erin C. Galbally, a senior attorney at Clark Hill's Philadelphia office, specializes in internal investigations into misconduct within companies, and is a certified Title IX investigator who has handled probes at schools and institutions of higher education. She says there are strategies that could be relevant for this case.
Here is our conversation, which was edited for clarity and brevity.
Let's say you field an allegation of misconduct. What's your first step?
My typical first step is to sit down with the complainant and try to get a thorough understanding of the allegations and the facts, and that includes where it happened, how it happened, who may have witnessed it — as many specifics as I possibly can. In addition to that, it's getting a list of other individuals who they believe might have relevant information.
We know victims of sexual misconduct often wait to report what happened. Have you experienced that over the years, and why do you think that is?
It's a really complicated thing to come forward. Particularly because I deal with a lot of workplace situations and a lot of educational environments, there is a stigma that attaches to folks who complain, and hopefully that stigma is dissipating. I think it can take a lot to come forward, and whether or not you realize it at the time, once an investigation is underway, that is a pretty thorough and intensive process. These things tend to become very public, even though we always endeavor to keep them as confidential as possible, both for the sake of the complainant and the person who is accused.
What do you look for in terms of assessing the credibility of an accuser?
Initially, it's a download of all the information. Sometimes you might have a gut instinct as to if there's any there there. That instinct is not going to cut it.
I really parse out and ask myself: What are the allegations? In a high-profile situation such as this, I would most likely have an early conversation with Kavanaugh to say, "These are the initial allegations, and we'll come back to you once our investigation is fully underway." Usually, I like to talk to those folks when I have a good bit of the investigation done so that I can come to them with a better sense or a clarified kind of list of allegations. When you're looking at something that happened decades ago, while the principles of the investigation remain the same and you have an obligation to look into every nook and cranny, it is definitely a challenging investigation to conduct because people's memories fade.
What else have you learned about memory?
I think people remember, generally, the events that occurred, but sometimes they might not remember some of the details as clearly. I would imagine that to be a significant issue [in the Kavanaugh case], just based on the fact that it may have happened so long ago. That also goes to credibility. Sometimes you can say, "Well, of course they don't remember such and such," or "Wow, that was a really critical detail," and it's hard to sometimes understand why that detail would not have emerged.
What other information to look for to corroborate an accusation?
Frequently, it comes down to "he said, she said." … You obviously are going to rely a lot on other witnesses or other individuals. Maybe you're looking at a pattern of conduct or comments that may have been made. Maybe the accuser had some sort of contemporaneous conversation with their best friend, or maybe you're looking at notes from a therapist. The meat of the investigation comes from the other witnesses. So you have basically the outline as presented by the complainant, and nine times out of 10, the person being accused is vehemently denying they did anything wrong. So it's kind of filling in the picture.
Is it a mistake for the committee to not interview Mark Judge?
Yes. And I strongly think there should be an [FBI] investigation. I think no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, I just think that makes the most sense, because it's a neutral party.
Let's say you were given time to advise the Senate Judiciary Committee on what to ask Ford and what to ask Kavanaugh. What would you advise them?
That forum is a pretty terrifying forum for both of them. What I try to do in my interviews is build a rapport with the person and try to make them feel as comfortable as I possibly can. I always try to underscore that I'm objective and don't have a horse in the race.
But in terms of making someone feel comfortable in the context of a Senate Judiciary Committee — they're under oath, so they have an obligation to answer truthfully. I don't really know if that's an environment that engenders a robust back-and-forth. But I think if I were talking to Kavanaugh, just as if I were talking to the complainant, I would really emphasize my objectivity and my role at looking at this, to figure out what happened.