For three and a half contentious hours last week in a downtown office in Denver, the chief executive of U.S.A. Swimming tried to distance himself and his organization from a lawsuit involving a California girl who was sexually abused by her club coach.
Tim Hinchey III, who took over the national governing body for swimming in 2017, said that he was not familiar with the details of the case and that he had not met the victim, according to a deposition reviewed by The New York Times. He also said he was not aware of any way of verifying that coaches, parents or children had been trained to deal with sexual abuse issues, even though his organization certifies coaches and oversees the sport at nearly every level.
“We can’t be there, on the ground, to support that type of training every single day,” Hinchey testified.
His testimony is central to the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on Tuesday in Stockton, Calif. The lawsuit will subject U.S.A. Swimming’s governance to intense and possibly discomfiting scrutiny at a time when numerous sexual abuse lawsuits involving Olympic sports — such as gymnastics, figure skating and taekwondo — are winding through the courts. There are also multiple federal investigations of Olympic sports federations, looking into their business practices as well as into accusations of sexual misconduct, according to people with knowledge of the investigations. The investigations were first reported in The Wall Street Journal.
The attorney general in California has also requested files from U.S.A. Swimming on at least a dozen coaches, according to U.S.A. Swimming emails reviewed by The Times.
Robert Allard, a lawyer for the plaintiff in the Stockton case, has represented several other swimmers in abuse lawsuits against coaches and the federation. “I think this case is a microcosm for how U.S.A. Swimming has viewed this issue: ‘I don’t want to deal with this. It’s dirty. It takes up too much of my time. I’d rather focus on other things,’” he said.
If Hinchey continues to be “indifferent and putting his hands to his ears and eyes,” Allard continued, “then he will continue to leave children vulnerable to predators.”
A spokeswoman for U.S.A. Swimming, Isabelle McLemore, declined to comment directly on the case, citing the litigation. But she said: “We cannot stress enough that athletes’ health and safety is U.S.A. Swimming’s No. 1 priority. It has been, it continues to be and we work to improve it every single day. The athletes are the core of everything we do, and we take that very seriously.”
A former swimmer at the University of California, Irvine, Hinchey worked as an executive in professional sports for two decades, including stops in the National Basketball Association, the English Football League and Major League Soccer, before joining U.S.A. Swimming in 2017.
He succeeded Chuck Wielgus, who died that year after a two-decade run during which he was credited with elevating the sport’s profile but also criticized for overlooking allegations of sexual abuse. Hinchey has no choice but to confront the problem. In just the last month, he has been deposed in the California case and another one in North Carolina.
In the Stockton case, a coach named Shunichi Fujishima pleaded guilty this summer to sexually abusing the plaintiff starting in 2017, the year she turned 12.
“Despite red flags of Fujishima’s predatory tendencies,” the civil complaint said, the swimming authorities “turned a blind eye to his activities.” Fujishima was sentenced last week to 12 years in prison, said Gilbert D. Somera, his lawyer.
During the investigation of Fujishima, documents surfaced indicating that senior U.S.A. Swimming officials, Hinchey included, had received copies of written accusations by a parent of another young swimmer against another coach with the same team, the Stockton Swim Club. The parent contended that the coach had committed statutory rape, and had sent sexually inappropriate messages.
In response, U.S.A. Swimming warned the coach in an email written by Susan Woessner, a senior executive, that “you agreed on the phone that your behavior could be perceived as inappropriate and told me that it won’t happen again.”
That coach has not been charged with a crime, and is not listed on the disciplinary database of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent organization dedicated to investigating abuse and funded partly by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
The Stockton lawsuit names Fujishima; the Stockton Swim Club; Pacific Swimming, the regional association; and U.S.A. Swimming as defendants.
Somera, who is also a longtime coach, questioned the plaintiffs’ strategy in that case.
“How is the big body of U.S.A. Swimming responsible for something that happens on a small local level?” he said. “I get it that U.S.A. Swimming has the big, deep pockets, but what makes you believe you can just drop your kids off, without the checks and balances of being a parent?”
With a 100-person central staff and a $40 million annual budget, U.S.A. Swimming has 2,800 local teams and 400,000 members, the vast majority of whom are children. The organization also certifies coaches, who have to complete a series of courses, including one on protecting athletes from abuse, and submit to a background check. And while its main goals are to promote the sport and cultivate competitive success, the U.S.A. Swimming website says that “training our members in abuse prevention and mandatory reporting is just as important as creating policies.”
When handling sexual abuse cases, U.S.A. Swimming has traditionally relied on several senior staff members, led by the general counsel, Lucinda McRoberts, to make group decisions, according to Woessner, who resigned last year and was deposed last week.
The accusations against the unidentified Stockton coach, for instance, were discussed at least a half-dozen times by senior staff members, Woessner said in her deposition.
Referring to the warning to that coach, Woessner testified that if Hinchey “disagreed with this course of action, he could let us know that and/or indicate that he, instead of the warning letter, wanted an investigation to go forward or voice any other concerns that he may have had.”
But a lawyer for U.S.A. Swimming, William S. Kronenberg, said Hinchey had been on the job for only 23 days when that complaint was made, and therefore would have been unlikely to “override the recommendation made by this experienced group of people who had been running this program for seven years.”
Hinchey’s deposition was more combative. Kronenberg objected more than 70 times — or once every three minutes.
In one exasperated exchange related to the unidentified coach, Allard said to Hinchey: “I don’t mean to argue with you, sir, but you have admissions by a coach that he has discussed sexual activity with a minor, told her he needs a cuddle — cuddle partner — and suggested that he had a friend who wants to get laid. What more do you need to know to understand that a more severe punishment should have been imposed than merely the issuance of a warning letter?”
Hinchey responded: “Again, I would go back and rely on the folks that were doing this in the part of the process. I wasn’t part of that case. So I would have to understand what my opportunities are, what my abilities would be, and I need to know what those are to be able to take action.”
David W. Chen is an investigative reporter on the Sports Desk. He was previously an investigative reporter on the Metro desk, the City Hall bureau chief, and worked in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the San Francisco Bay Area before joining The Times in 1995. @davidwchen
Source: Read Full Article