Georgia Tech investigating sexual assault claims against coach Josh Pastner

Georgia Tech opened an investigation Friday into allegations its men's basketball coach sexually assaulted an Arizona woman.

The school said it would hire an “outside, independent” investigator to look into charges against second-year coach Josh Pastner. He was accused in a lawsuit filed Thursday of assaulting or harassing the woman more than a dozen times in 2016.

“We expect every member of our community to practice the highest ethical principles and standards of conduct,” Tech said in a statement announcing the investigation.

The announcement ended the virtual silence with which Tech initially greeted the sexual-misconduct accusations. Earlier, Tech spokesmen described the allegations as a “personal matter” and would not say whether the school’s president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson, was engaged in assessing Pastner’s status at Tech.

Tech's investigation began about 24 hours after Jennifer Pendley, 45, of Tucson, the girlfriend of a now-estranged friend of Pastner's, sued Pastner, saying he masturbated in front of her and tried to force her to perform oral sex in a Houston hotel room in 2016. He was the head coach at Memphis at the time. Pendley also said Pastner repeatedly groped and harassed her after he moved to Tech. Several of the episodes allegedly occurred on Tech's property or at school-sanctioned events.

Pastner has strongly denied the allegations. Last month, he sued Pendley and her boyfriend, Ron Bell, 51, accusing them of defamation, extortion and blackmail. The couple spent several weeks with Pastner's team in 2016, first in Memphis and then in Atlanta. Bell has said he provided impermissible benefits to two Tech athletes on Pastner's behalf, violating NCAA rules.

Tech did not identify the investigator who will look into Pendley’s allegations. In the statement, the school said it had received no “direct complaints” and noted that no police report had been filed.

“However, the institute takes all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously, taking appropriate action when made aware of claims,” the statement said.

Video: A look at Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner

Tech finds itself dealing with sexual-misconduct allegations at a fraught moment. An onslaught of allegations against powerful men in entertainment, the media and politics has left many institutions feeling pressure to respond quickly and decisively.

The University of New Mexico suspended its football coach, Bob Davie, for 30 days without pay Thursday while it investigates reports he told his team to "get some dirt" on a student who accused a player of rape. At Michigan State University, athletics director Mark Hollis resigned recently over the school's handling of sexual-assault cases involving athletes; the school also had come under fire for protecting Larry Nassar, the U.S. Gymnastics team doctor who molested hundreds of athletes.

Tech's history of aggressively punishing students accused of sexual misconduct complicates how it deals with Pastner's case. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis published in 2016 found that Tech expelled or suspended nearly every student accused of sexual misconduct in the previous five years. Tech was so strict that state legislators introduced bills calling for due process, and the state Board of Regents adopted more lenient rules for all Georgia universities.

In its own policies, Tech says sexual misconduct by employees “represents a failure in professional and ethical behavior that will not be condoned.” Violators may face “permanent exclusion” from the school.

Tech is not a party to Pendley’s lawsuit.

Pendley broke into tears Thursday as she spoke outside the courthouse in Tucson, where her lawsuit was filed. “It’s very hard,” she said on Tucson television station KOLD, “when something like this happens to you and you think you’re the only person this has been happening to.”

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get justice for this,” she added.

In court filings, Pastner contends Pendley and Bell concocted the sexual assault claims as part of an extortion scheme.

Pastner declined to discuss the case Friday during a news conference to discuss Sunday’s game against No. 9 Duke. But he could not avoid the subject Thursday, when Tech lost 77-54 at Louisville. Spectators in the student section heckled Pastner, according to Twitter posts by a Louisville sportscaster, and the coach’s post-game news conference quickly turned to the accusations he faces.

Pastner denied the allegations in no uncertain terms.

“Unequivocally, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero truth to any of those disgusting, bogus allegations,” he said. “It’s disgusting. And there’s zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, zero truth to that.”

“I absolutely got victimized,” Pastner added. “I’m an absolute victim in this whole deal.”