Lawyers whose report led to Starr's ouster at Baylor are former Philadelphia sex-crimes prosecutors

Lawyers Gina Maisto Smith (left) and Leslie Gomez have been working together since their days in the District Attorney’s Office. A colleague praises their “laserlike commitment.”

The two Philadelphia lawyers whose investigation led to the ouster of former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr as president of Baylor University are former veteran sex-crimes prosecutors who have built a practice helping institutions respond to allegations of sexual abuse.

After a 10-month probe and 65 interviews, Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez produced a damning report that said the university did not take seriously the complaints of women who had been assaulted by university football players - and even actively discouraged victims from filing complaints.

Their investigation led the Texas university on Thursday to demote Starr, whose investigation of President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment in 1998. Baylor also fired the school football coach and suspended its athletic director.

Smith and Gomez declined comment but issued a statement saying they were hopeful that their work would spur further reform at Baylor.

"We are deeply committed to improving campus policies and practices nationally, and have devoted our careers to confronting sexual and interpersonal violence," they said.

Smith, 55, and Gomez, 45, have been working together since their days in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. Smith, a graduate of Temple law school, joined that office in 1986. Gomez, a Yale law school graduate, joined in 1994.

People who have worked with the two women describe them as tireless, tenacious, and filled with a sense of righteous indignation over the crimes they have investigated and prosecuted.

"They have this tremendous laserlike commitment to the welfare of the child," said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which provides legal services to victims of child abuse.

"They can be gracious in all the ways that you would expect of a high-quality lawyer, but try to pull an angle or get over on them, and look out. They are going to be mean."

At the District Attorney's Office, Smith and Gomez spent most of their years in the family violence and sexual assault unit, investigating and prosecuting rapes, domestic assaults, and child abuse and neglect.

Smith worked in the office for two decades, capping her career there as a homicide prosecutor in cases that included sexual assaults. In court, she won a reputation for her fierce advocacy for victims - and for a willingness to pursue cases with little evidence other than the word of accusers against the accused.

Maria McColgan, medical director of the child protection program at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, worked with Smith and Gomez on child sexual abuse and neglect cases. She described them as collaborative and driven.

"It's all part of their passion for making the world a better place," said McColgan, who often testified as an expert witness in their prosecutions.

In 2006, Smith left government to join the Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr L.L.P. There, she landed a major client in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which hired her in 2011 when it was reeling from a grand jury report that accused the church of harboring abusive priests.

Smith recommended that the archdiocese immediately suspend about two dozen priests who had been named in the report while she put together an interdisciplinary team to review whether they should face discipline. In time, about 15 priests were permanently removed from ministry.

In 2013, Smith left Ballard Spahr and joined her current firm, Pepper Hamilton L.L.P. Gomez, who had left the District Attorney's Office in 2011 to join Smith at Ballard Spahr, also moved to Pepper Hamilton.

Thomas M. Gallagher, Pepper Hamilton's chairman, praised the two women Friday.

"What they have done on behalf of Baylor," he said, "is what they have done for dozens of other clients: get to the truth of how the institution has responded to allegations of misconduct, and present a path forward for the university, not just in its response to incidents of violence or harassment, but in building a truly open and compassionate culture."

In a statement summarizing the investigation by Smith and Gomez, Baylor said administrators and coaches repeatedly overlooked or downplayed allegations of sexual assault by athletes.

In 2010, now-dismissed football coach Art Briles led the team to the Texas Bowl, finishing off the Bears' first winning season in 15 years. During his eight seasons with the Bears, Briles won two Big 12 championships and had a 63-37 record. He was reportedly paid $4 million yearly.

Among the team's biggest boosters was Starr, who used to join students in running onto the field before games.

Although the federal government requires colleges to establish rigorous programs for investigating assaults, Baylor's program was weak and reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of its responsibilities, according to the findings.

Some sexual-assault cases were informally investigated by the athletic department and football staff, an inherently problematic practice since the athletic staff had an interest in the outcome.

The investigation also criticized the university for failing to adequately respond to a 2011 directive from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights requiring colleges to toughen procedures for handling sexual-assault complaints.

cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy