SafeS­port added to law­suit in­volv­ing Lopez brothers

The Commercial Appeal - - Sports -

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

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