Lopez investigation enters 14th month
An investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against two-time Olympic taekwondo champion Steven Lopez continues into its 14th month, nearly 12 months longer than the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s average for resolving cases.
The center received cases against Steven Lopez and his older brother and coach, Jean, from Donald Alperstein, an attorney USA Taekwondo hired in 2015 to look into misconduct allegations, when it opened in March 2017.
While USA Taekwondo never held a hearing on the allegations against either Lopez, as would have been required by its bylaws at the time, Alperstein was concerned enough by what he’d found to alert the FBI.
On April 3, more than a year after receiving the cases against the brothers, SafeSport declared Jean Lopez permanently ineligible after finding that he had committed violations including sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct involving a minor.
Jean Lopez is appealing the decision. In separate interviews with USA TODAY in June, both Lopez brothers denied all allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
According to SafeSport, its investigations were lasting an average of 63 days as of this month.
USA TODAY reported in June that two women had accused Steven Lopez of rape or sexual assault. Mandy Meloon spoke on the record, while a second woman requested anonymity. USA TODAY does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault who have not gone public.
The length of time it has taken to resolve the case is “disappointing and in my eyes unnecessary,” said the woman, who was a former member of the junior national team. It “seems to just show neglect and lack of action on their part, in my opinion. They have full testimonies from multiple women, and nothing has been done.
“I do not communicate with SafeSport anymore because I don’t trust them and I think they’re quite negligent of the accusations and taking action.”
Meloon said Kathleen Smith, SafeSport’s investigator on the case, told her in early March that Steven Lopez was scheduled to be interviewed March 13. Smith has since followed up with Meloon to confirm that Lopez has been interviewed and to interview Meloon again.
SafeSport CEO Shellie Pfohl told USA TODAY that while she could not speak about the Lopez case, several factors can determine the length of an investigation, including lining up interviews with reporting parties and witnesses.
“I think at the end of the day, while we would all like our timeline to be as concise as possible when dealing with every single report that comes in, we are going to choose getting it right over brevity any day,” she said.
Meloon had previously expressed concern to Smith that action wouldn’t be taken against the Lopez brothers, a frustration that stemmed more from a lack of action after first reporting to USA Taekwondo in 2006.
SafeSport found Jean Lopez had sexually assaulted Meloon at a tournament in 1997 when she was 16.
“Now I understand that it takes time. It’s not based off our emotions. They have to do the legwork and talk to people and get timelines and witnesses and all that,” Meloon said.
“I understand that they have to have guidelines. I’d rather have it be done properly. I’m actually very happy with the process, and not because it’s just going my way. It’s something’s being done.”
In the meantime, Steven Lopez is free to compete and hold camps.
The 39-year-old is taekwondo’s biggest star and the most decorated athlete in that sport with three Olympic medals and five world championships.
Steven Lopez qualified for his 24th national team in February and told the Houston Chronicle he intends to keep competing through the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
SafeSport made public on April 4 that Lopez is subject to interim restrictions, but it’s not clear what those are. Since he was placed on “interim measure-restriction” on June 19, Lopez has competed in last year’s world championships as well as this year’s U.S. Open and national team trials.
Any permanent or interim measures would have to be enforced by a national governing body, Pfohl said.
USA Taekwondo executive director Steve McNally said he could not comment on an “in-process case” but added that USA Taekwondo is “rigorously enforcing any permanent or interim measures that SafeSport has handed down to us.”
The Olympic movement is under scrutiny for its handling of sexual abuse cases following revelations that longtime USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar abused hundreds of women, including Olympic champions Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas.
The Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security will hold a hearing on the issue Wednesday. Wieber is among those expected to testify.
The bipartisan House Energy and Commerce Committee in January asked the U.S. Olympic Committee and three national governing bodies, including USA Taekwondo, to provide information on how they have handled complaints. It has since expanded its inquiry to include all national governing bodies.
The USOC has long maintained it does not have the authority or resources to investigate abuse complaints. Instead, it created SafeSport, which is charged with adjudicating all sexual abuse complaints in the Olympic movement.
Since it opened, the center has received 631 reports and closed 320 of those cases as of March 23.
Pfohl said not all of those reports led to an investigation. Criminal convictions and pleas, for example, are deemed a violation of the SafeSport code.
A USA TODAY analysis of SafeSport’s published database of disciplinary actions through April 5 found that 88 of the 152 individuals, or 57%, followed a criminal disposition.
But SafeSport has shown that an investigation is not necessary to take action, and it has done so quickly in other cases.
Figure skating coach Richard Callaghan was temporarily suspended on March 6, five weeks after SafeSport was made aware that Callaghan had been accused of sexual misconduct 19 years ago.
The volume of cases has likely played a role when there are lengthy delays, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming and civil rights attorney who, as an advocate for the protection of athletes, has lobbied SafeSport in an attempt to help it improve its policies.
“If you look at (the Lopezes’) Facebook page, they are making a mint out of doing what I call human trophy work,” Hogshead-Makar said. “They go from club to club to club, and they are Olympians. They give lessons. They have access to kids and young women. If you want to prioritize, which ones do you go after first, I would say they’re right up there.”
Despite the number of reports, the Lopez case provided a potential leg up because Alperstein had already been investigating.
In June, USA TODAY reported the stories of two women who said they had told Alperstein about alleged sexual misconduct by Steven Lopez.
Meloon said Lopez, whom she dated on and off for about six years, raped her once and repeatedly physically assaulted her. A former member of the junior national team said she was drugged three times and that Steven Lopez sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious on one of those occasions.
Both allowed Alperstein to share their accounts with SafeSport. In a letter obtained by USA TODAY, he told Meloon in March 2017 that he had shared the women’s accounts with the FBI.
USA TODAY reported in June that Meloon was interviewed by an agent in May, but FBI spokespeople said then and this month that they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.