Dominoes of dishonesty?
The alleged web of deceit that has come to light in a domestic torture case is having far reaching consequences, including the retraction of a high-profile research paper from McMaster University and questions over an inappropriately prescribed drug.
CREDIBILITY MATTERS in a criminal trial. It matters a lot.
Yet it is being called into question for unexpected reasons in a complex domestic violence case playing out in a Hamilton courtroom for nine months and counting.
While the abuse allegations are horrific, the case has also exposed a web of alleged dishonesty beyond the trial, some of which threatens the reputation of celebrated McMaster University researcher Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, who should have nothing to do with this.
The courtroom has heard a research paper he signed off on is now under scrutiny, and he is accused of writing a prescription for someone who was never his patient.
Until the trial, those concerns hadn’t surfaced.
Sara Salim says she was tortured, abused and imprisoned in the Binbrook home where she lived with her husband, Adeel Safdar, and his family.
The Safdars say Sara is mentally ill and caused injuries to herself, including a broken jaw. They say she is faking abuse to win a custody battle.
Someone is lying. It will be up to Justice Andrew Goodman to decide who.
The truth of the abuse allegations — branding Sara with an iron, forcing her to carve words into her own leg with a knife, refusing to let her care for her baby — is at the core of this trial. From there, other questions and other questions of dishonesty have sprouted:
One of the most notable scientific research papers published by Adeel Safdar will be retracted due to concerns about academic fraud. This may be the death knell of Safdar’s once-stellar kinesiology career with ties to McMaster and Harvard universities, and more than $2.5 million in federal research grants.
It may also be a serious black mark on the reputation of superstar McMaster scientist Tarnopolsky, Safdar’s mentor and senior author of the research now under investigation.
Tarnopolsky is alleged to have written a prescription for Sara, who was never his patient.
A defence lawyer flung accusations of plagiarism at renowned domestic violence expert Dr. Peter Jaffe, only to have the suggestion vehemently denounced by the judge. Yet that didn’t stop Safdar from complaining about plagiarism to Jaffe’s employer.
A key defence witness was dramatically caught lying under oath. ADEEL SAFDAR, 38,
is charged with assault with a weapon, uttering a death threat, aggravated assault and two counts of assault upon his wife, Sara.
Shaheen Safdar, 61, is charged with assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, assault, uttering death threats and aggravated assault upon Sara, who is her daughter-inlaw.
Aatif Safdar, 36, is charged with assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, assault and threatening death upon Sara, his sister-inlaw.
ADEEL SAFDAR was a science star.
McMaster University loved him. He did his undergrad there and eventually his PhD in kinesiology. He landed a position as a lab tech with Tarnopolsky, one of the university’s most distinguished researchers and a professor of pediatrics and medicine.
Tarnopolsky took Safdar under his wing and included him in several projects. The most notable was a study of the effect exercise has on the aging process of mice. The more exercise a mouse has, the slower it ages, they concluded.
In January 2011, they published a paper on that research in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. This is the paper now called into question.
Around the same time, Safdar and Tarnopolsky also published a different paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was widely praised and Safdar reportedly received a standing ovation when he presented the findings at a conference. The Spectator, and other media, reported on the research.
Safdar won prestigious awards, including the 2012 Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies.
“To me, this award is the equivalent to a mini-Nobel Prize at the graduate level,” he was quoted as saying in a Mac newsletter.
Tarnopolsky said at the time: “I had no doubt he would be the best graduate student that I ever had or will have. And he was.”
In the spring of 2012, Safdar went to Harvard University as a post-doctoral fellow. He was there to study how heart disease is linked to diabetes and insulin resistance.
That’s when things began to unravel. On Dec. 24, 2013 — the day after their daughter was born — Safdar told Sara he’d been fired from Harvard.
“My work at Harvard was suffering,” he testified, because of “the amount of time I was putting into the relationship (with Sara).”
Harvard declined to comment for this story.
Days later, the couple and their newborn moved into the family home in Binbrook. Safdar resumed working for Tarnopolsky.
McMaster says Safdar is no longer affiliated with Mac. The university would not elaborate. It is unclear exactly when Safdar left.
Tarnopolsky says when he parted ways with Safdar there were “no concerns about the integrity of any papers.”
In February 2017, Safdar — now facing domestic assault charges — was hired by Humber College as its research chair to develop an applied research program focusing on health outcomes.
In December, Humber confirmed Safdar worked there and said it knew nothing of his charges or that he was currently on trial. A few days later, Humber said Safdar was no longer employed there because his contract had expired.
Safdar, 38, is not currently working. He has custody of his daughter, and Sara, a medical doctor, is paying support.
A few months ago, after stories about the Safdar case began appearing in The Spectator, a whistleblower reached out to police and the Crown and raised concerns about the validity of that 2011 Journal of Biological Chemistry paper.
Police interviewed Tarnopolsky, and McMaster began an internal “academic integrity” investigation. The Crown, Jeff Levy, raised the allegation of dishonesty in court while cross-examining Safdar.
“He has, in fact, been accused of academic dishonesty and (that) he fudged his results,” Levy said.
He suggested Safdar’s research could not have had the results he claimed because Tarnopolsky’s lab did not even have the equipment that could lead to such a result. The Crown said that when Safdar was asked to prove his research results to pharmaceutical company representatives in October 2016, he was unable to reproduce them.
“That is absolutely false,” Safdar responded from the witness box.
That statement was followed by one of Safdar’s few angry outbursts on the stand. It was aimed at Tarnopolsky.
“I was being bullied to sign paperwork. I was being abused … I should have made a complaint about him. I have not made a complaint about him — yet.”
Justice Andrew Goodman shut down Levy’s line of questioning.
“Clearly it’s irrelevant and inadmissible,” says lawyer Dean Paquette, who represents Safdar at his criminal trial.
Paquette says his client has not been academically dishonest and will “fully co-operate” with the ongoing McMaster investigation. Safdar is having difficulty scheduling an interview with Mac, according to Paquette, because of his criminal trial and his family court trial, where he is now representing himself.
In an interview with The Spectator, Tarnopolsky said: “My decision is that paper will be retracted.”
Paquette says he does not know if Safdar is aware the 2011 paper is being pulled. He says Safdar and Tarnopolsky no longer speak.
Tarnopolsky says he contacted the journal and told it of the allegation. Since March 30, a suspension notice has appeared online at the top of the article, stating: “The publisher of the Journal of Biological Chemistry is issuing an Expression of Concern to inform readers that credible concerns have been raised regarding some of the data and conclusions in the article listed above.”
Tarnopolsky says all six authors of the paper, including himself, went over the research and results and found nothing suspect before they submitted it for publication. He says in the seven years between publication and the recent allegation, nobody raised concerns.
The allegation, he explains, stems from “blot manipulation.” Blots showing protein cause a unique pattern, almost like a fingerprint. The accusation is that Safdar used the same blot twice or manipulated a blot.
Though the investigation into the paper is ongoing, Tarnopolsky says he is pulling the paper regardless of the probe’s results.
“It is critical to not have misleading information in the literature,” he says. “Even the allegation renders the paper suspect.”
The allegation has a ripple effect. What about funding the researchers had from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a private donation from a family? What about research done by other scientists that built on conclusions from the suspect paper? (The paper has been cited in at least 15 other articles.) What about the validity of Safdar’s other published work?
Humber College has said, in a news release announcing his appointment, that Safdar secured more than $2.5 million in federal research grants. (The release also said he “completed” his post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, but Safdar admitted on the stand that he was fired.) Safdar and Tarnopolsky have published at least 34 papers together.
Tarnopolsky says he is “shocked” by the allegation and is adamant he saw nothing amiss with the research or its conclusions.
“I would have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose,” he said.
IT WAS A PASSING reference made by Sara during the trial.
Her husband asked his boss, Tarnopolsky, to write an antidepressant prescription for her. Tarnopolsky obliged and Safdar filled it, although Sara says she never took the pills.
The evidence raises serious questions about Tarnopolsky’s medical ethics and the possibility he breached his legal obligations.
First, Sara didn’t consent to the prescription. There is no indication she even knew about the request.
Second, Sara was not Tarnopolsky’s patient. She met him once, court heard, at a party.
Third, Tarnopolsky did not examine Sara, nor would he have legitimate access to her medical records or prescription history.
Fourth, Tarnopolsky is a pediatrician, not a psychiatrist.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario says: “Before prescribing a drug, physicians must have current knowledge of the patient’s clinical status. This can only be accomplished through an appropriate clinical assessment of the patient.”
Tarnopolsky declined comment, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.
This issue is even more concerning given that the domestic violence trial hinges in large part on whether Sara was mentally ill or the victim of a plot by the Safdars to make her appear mentally ill.
Allegations of plagiarism
ONE EXPERT WITNESS called by the Crown at the Safdar trial was Dr. Peter Jaffe, arguably Canada’s most knowledgeable academic on the issue of domestic violence.
Jaffe is a full-time professor of psychology at Western University who has published dozens of papers and testified at countless trials during his 40-year career. He was called to present a summary of academic literature about domestic violence and offer his opinion on Sara’s mental state, based on interviews with her. (He told the court he believed she had never been mentally ill.)
When Jaffe was cross-examined by Lauren Wilhelm, a lawyer for Adeel, things took an unexpected turn.
Wilhelm suggested portions of a report Jaffe prepared for the court were plagiarized. Wilhelm said she ran the report through Turn It In, a software program used by professors (like Jaffe) to determine what percentage of an essay consists of passages from previously written material. Wilhelm said some of Jaffe’s report appeared elsewhere, including in student papers.
The allegation ground the trial to a halt while Goodman listened to arguments about it.
Jaffe cited 36 sources in his references at the end of the report. He said when he writes for court he does not apply the same standard for references as for an academic paper. No court has ever questioned his method before.
Some of the “plagiarism” from student papers may, in fact, be student papers quoting Jaffe’s own work.
In the end, Goodman strongly ruled against the suggestion Jaffe plagiarized.
“There is little doubt — in fact, no doubt — that Dr. Jaffe has extensive experience, training and education … His vast experience and training suggest that he is, in fact, a leader in this area of domestic violence … I do not accept that there is any foundation for the accusation, insinuation or suggestion that Dr. Jaffe plagiarized work in the preparation of this report … The foundation for this dire assertion is groundless.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. On learning Jaffe may be called as a witness at his family court trial, Safdar wrote a letter to the London Family Court Clinic, where Jaffe is director emeritus and senior consultant. He once again accused Jaffe of plagiarism — despite Goodman’s ruling.
“Yes, I did make a complaint about Dr. Peter Jaffe,” Safdar said when the Crown raised it at the criminal trial. “I was very afraid that after the crossexamination he faced, he is very biased and he is going to take out his anger on me.”
Safdar’s complaint was dismissed by the London Family Court Clinic.
Levy told court the letter of complaint, which did not mention the judge ruled against plagiarism, showed Safdar is “willing to go to any lengths” to get what he wants and “that he’s untruthful.”
The judge said Safdar is “entitled to disagree” with him outside the courtroom. Jaffe declined comment, citing the ongoing court cases.
Lying under oath
THERE IS DISHONESTY. And then there is straight up lying.
Sehrish Hassan, wife of accused Aatif Safdar, got caught lying under oath during the trial.
The law school graduate was called to the stand by Paquette, lawyer for Adeel. Her testimony matched — sometimes almost verbatim — Adeel’s testimony. They said Sara was mentally ill and harmed herself.
Under cross-examination, Hassan was smug and haughty.
Crown Levy asked Hassan if she reviewed the disclosure given to her husband, who is self-represented. She said she hadn’t. She repeated that claim several times.
Shortly after, Levy learned Hassan prepared notes for her testimony. He asked the judge to allow him to see the notes. Paquette did not object and the judge ordered Hassan to pass over the notes.
What happened next is being called a “Perry Mason moment” by some at the courthouse, referring to the fictional TV lawyer who dramatically unearthed evidence in the courtroom to crack the case.
Hassan fumbled in her bag, eventually pulling out papers stapled together. As she did so, the last page was torn off and left in her bag. She later told the court that was “an accident.” But the lawyers saw what she did and she was made to turn over all the pages.
When the trial resumed after a break, Levy asked her again if she’d read the disclosure. This time, Hassan admitted she had. She “misspoke” about it when asked earlier.
That last page left in her bag said: “I have read every correspondence/legal document/affidavit/police disclosure we have received to date, more often than not to explain them to my family members.”
“Telling a lie on the witness stand is perjury,” says Michael Lacy, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association of Ontario. “Admitting you told a lie on the witness stand can be used against you for a prosecution of perjury. Describing how you were mistaken or need to correct an earlier answer because you misspoke is a grey area and is not obvious perjury.”
On reading someone else’s disclosure, Lacy says “if there is a deliberate attempt to taint evidence or to fabricate aspects of a narrative by using the disclosure, a charge of attempt to obstruct justice might be appropriate.”
Levy won’t comment on whether a charge will be laid.
At the time of her testimony Hassan, 30, was working as a law clerk at Hughes Amys firm in Hamilton.
Senior partner Bill Chalmers says Hassan “is no longer working at the firm.” He says details of her departure are private.
Hassan told court she hoped to take her exams to practise as a lawyer.
Law Society of Ontario communications adviser Susan Tonkin says licensing applicants are required “to be of good character and to disclose, among other things, criminal convictions, whether they have been subject to a penalty imposed by a court, administrative tribunal or regulatory body, or whether there are other matters in their past or present circumstances that may place their character at issue.”
That’s when things began to unravel. On Dec. 24, 2013, the day after their daughter was born, Safdar told Sara he’d been fired from Harvard.
Tarnopolsky did not examine Sara, nor would he have legitimate access to her medical records or prescription history.
The release also said he “completed” his post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, but Safdar admitted on the stand that he was fired.