09/13/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
In the years since his acquittal in a notorious 1991 Palm Beach, Fla., rape case, William Kennedy Smith has kept a low profile, walking his dog near his Chicago townhouse and riding his bike along Lake Michigan. But the whispering never stopped. "He couldn't walk down the street without people calling him a rapist," says longtime friend Robin Segal Swann. "It was painful, but he'd just smile and not say anything."
On Aug. 30 Smith, 44, a doctor and founder of the Chicago-based humanitarian Center for International Rehabilitation, was silent no longer. Citing a sexual-assault allegation made against him five days earlier, Smith called the charge "outrageous" and "untrue." He then announced that in order to "protect the organization I love," he was nevertheless resigning as CIR's head. "The damage has been done," he added. "But the truth will be sorted out."
Smith's surprise resignation stems from a $50,000-plus civil suit filed Aug. 25 by his former assistant Audra Soulias, 28. In the suit—which charges Smith with causing "extreme emotional distress"—Soulias alleges that on the night of Jan. 15, 1999, Smith, then her boss, bought her drinks, took her to his home and sexually assaulted her. The following afternoon, says Soulias's sister Melissa, 24, she found Audra on the floor of her room in shock. "She showed me the bruises on her arms. They were actual handprints," she says. Smith's attorney calls the charges financially motivated, pointing out that Soulias—who filed for bankruptcy in 2000—never lodged criminal charges and dated Smith for several months after the alleged assault. (Experts say that such erratic behavior is not uncommon among assault victims.)
In the wake of the suit, CIR confirmed that late last year it hired a team to look into sexual-harassment allegations against Smith, which were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and amicably resolved. In fact, phone calls from Smith asking about her role in the investigation, says Soulias, are what finally prompted her to go public. "She doesn't want anybody else to suffer," says her sister Melissa. "All she wants out of this is for it to stop."