SafeSport added to lawsuit involving Lopez brothers
The U.S. Center for SafeSport on Friday was added to a federal lawsuit that alleges the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo engaged in sex trafficking and negligence by female athletes who said those sport organizations sent them to competitions with known predators.
Two-time Olympic champion Steven Lopez and Jean Lopez, his brother and longtime coach, are defendants in the lawsuit, which was originally filed in U.S. District Court in Denver in May.
SafeSport declared Jean Lopez permanently ineligible in April, finding him in violation of the SafeSport code for sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct involving a minor. SafeSport found that Jean Lopez had assaulted Mandy Meloon, Heidi Gilbert and a third woman with whom he had also engaged in a sexual relationship with starting when she was 17.
Kay Poe, a 2000 Olympian, was that third woman and came forward to join the lawsuit on Friday.
SafeSport’s decision found Jean Lopez had engaged in a “decades long pattern of sexual misconduct by an older athlete/coach abusing his power to groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes.”
But the center lifted that sanction earlier this month after a dispute with the women’s attorneys over what kind of testimony they would provide as part of Jean Lopez’s appeal.
“This case will conclusively demonstrate that SafeSport is a sham,” said Robert Allard, one of the attorneys representing the women in the case. “We have seen case after case highlighted by the recent decision to reinstate alleged serial predator Jean Lopez where SafeSport bends over backward to protect pedophile coaches and, as a consequence, the financial interests of the USOC and its NGB’s.”
A SafeSport spokesman did not immediately return a message from USA TODAY Sports on Saturday morning.
Earlier this month, attorney Stephen Estey said that SafeSport attorney Joe Zonies had told him the center could not defend its lifetime ban of Lopez unless the women testified in person.
Estey said he offered that the women could provide written testimony because they are already going to be subject to questioning in the lawsuit, and he didn’t want them to have to testify multiple times.
SafeSport, effectively, required a form of live testimony to move forward.
SafeSport spokesman Dan Hill said the center offered options including “offsite questioning by video or telephone, as well as an opportunity for reporting parties to be questioned only by the arbitrator, without direct cross-examination by the responding party or their lawyer.”
The amended complaint asserts that SafeSport and the USOC, which created the center and provides a large share of its funding, violated their duty to the plaintiffs in not defending its sanction of Jean Lopez.
SafeSport lifted its sanction of permanently ineligibility for Jean Lopez and replaced with a temporary restriction, though it’s not clear what that covers. Hill said in his statement that SafeSport is “weighing its administrative options to determine how to best address this situation.”
Howard Jacobs, an attorney for Lopez, said his client is restricted from contacting the women in the SafeSport case but is able to coach.
“By abruptly reversing course and abandoning the allegations raised by Plaintiffs without good cause, Defendants have inflicted severe emotional harm on all five Plaintiffs and all others victimized by the Lopez brothers,” the complaint says.
“Reinstating Jean Lopez after already finding him to be a serial rapist was grossly negligent and also the continuation of a long-range pattern: officials from the USOC, SafeSport, and USAT have sheltered Jean Lopez from suspension and prosecution because he and his brother, superstar Olympic taekwondo athlete Steven Lopez, have delivered “medals and money” at the Olympics and other competitions around the globe.”
Jean Lopez, 44, has coached Steven throughout his career as well as siblings Mark and Diana, who also medaled in the 2008 Olympics.
Steven Lopez is taekwondo’s biggest star and the most decorated athlete in that sport. He is a five-time Olympian with gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and a bronze in 2008, as well as five world titles.
Jean Lopez has denied all of the allegations, both in interviews with SafeSport
Rachel Axon and Nancy Armour
and last spring with USA TODAY Sports.
“I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone,” Jean Lopez told USA TODAY Sports.
Steven Lopez also denied the allegations against him in a 2017 interview with USA TODAY Sports. SafeSport issued an interim suspension for Steven Lopez in May. It had previously put him under interim restrictions starting in June 2017.
USA TODAY Sports reported in June 2017 that four women had accused the Lopez brothers of sexual misconduct. Mandy Meloon and Heidi Gilbert shared their names in that story, while Amber Means and Gabriela Joslin first came forward publicly in the lawsuit.
Meloon first filed a complaint with USA Taekwondo in 2006 that Jean Lopez had sexually assaulted her at a tournament in 1997. She was 16 at the time. While USA Taekwondo dismissed her claim at the time, SafeSport’s investigation found it to have merit.
“This matter concerns a decades long pattern of sexual misconduct by an older athlete/coach abusing his power to groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes,” SafeSport said in its decision obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
“Given the number of incidents reported over a span of several years and by multiple reporting parties, most of whom have no reasonable motive to fabricate an allegation – much less multiple, distinct incidents – of misconduct, the totality of the circumstances clearly shows a recurrent pattern of behavior on the part of Jean.”
SafeSport’s sanction came three years after USA Taekwondo began its investigation into complaints against the Lopezes.
The national governing body handed over the investigation to SafeSport when it opened in March 2017.
Though the center had been closing cases in an average of 63 days, it took more than a year to reach a decision in Jean Lopez’s case.
Jean Lopez, right, has coached siblings Steven, Mark and Diana in the Olympics. EILEEN BLASS/USA TODAY SPORTS