Last April, Jean Lopez — a legendary taekwondo coach of four U.S. Olympic teams — was permanently banned from all USA Taekwondo and U.S. Olympic activities after a thorough investigation from the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Response & Resolution Office found that he was guilty of “attempting/actually digitally penetrating a minor, receiving manual sexual contact from a minor, repeatedly dry-humping minors, and engaging in and attempting to engage in non-consensual sexual intercourse.”
Five months later, his younger brother, Steven Lopez — himself a five-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist in taekwondo — was permanently banned after the same office found that he was guilty of “grooming a minor, sexually touching her vaginal area and breasts, and receiving oral sex.”
However, both brothers appealed SafeSport’s bans. And, in both cases, the bans were permanently overturned after SafeSport failed to adequately defend the bans in arbitration.
And so, just months after SafeSport ruled both men were a danger to the safety of others in the Olympic movement, the brothers — who are often referred to as the First Family of Taekwondo — are once again eligible to coach and compete anywhere they’d please.
The Center for SafeSport, which opened its doors in 2017, is advertised as an independent nonprofit organization dedicated preventing sexual abuse in Olympic sports. Over the past few years, as the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) has been heavily scrutinized for its lack of response to sex abuse in Olympic sports — thanks largely to the publicity brought on by the serial sex abuse by former USA Gymnastics and USOC doctor Larry Nassar — USOC officials have continually presented Safe Sport as the solution.
However, a look at what happened in the arbitration hearings for the Lopez brothers reveals more questions than answers about the disciplinary process, the independence of SafeSport, and, most disturbingly, whose side SafeSport is really on: Does it care more about protecting survivors, or about protecting itself and the USOC from civil liability?
The disturbing Safe Sport findings
First, it’s important to take a step back and realize how serious the allegations are against Steven and Jean, and just how thorough these investigations were. USA Taekwondo first began to investigate the Lopez brothers back in 2015, after receiving allegations that they had sexually assaulted multiple women. But in 2016, the investigation was put on hold so that the brothers could attend the Rio Olympics, despite the fact that USA Taekwondo’s investigating attorney, Donald Alperstein, was so alarmed about what they had already uncovered, he alerted the FBI. In early 2017, the cases were handed over from USA Taekwondo to the Center for SafeSport. It was another full year before any bans were handed down.
When the bans were announced, they were accompanied by reports that didn’t mince words about the heinous acts committed by the Lopezes. According to a confidential investigation report from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, reviewed by ThinkProgress, Jean Lopez first began sexually assaulting Kay Poe in 1999, when he was 25 and she was 15; he molested Mandy Meloon while she pretended to sleep at a 1997 World Cup event in Cairo, Egypt, when she was only 15; in 2003, he “likely” drugged and molested Heidi Gilbert at a World Cup event in Germany. Overall, SafeSport found that Jean had enacted “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 deemed Lopez’s alleged victims credible because they “often contemporaneously reported their experiences” and “the descriptions of the various relationships share a number of common facts.”
Steven, meanwhile, “engaged in sexual misconduct with Nina Zampetti in 2000, while she was a minor athlete competing in taekwondo, and he was an adult taekwondo athlete who also helped serve as her coach,” according to SafeSport. The report says that Lopez engaged in grooming behavior with Zampetti beginning when she was just 10 years old, and when she was 14 years old, 22-year-old Steven rubbed her “private area” with his foot, touched her breasts over her bra, asked her to strip naked, and forced his genitals into her mouth.
Safe Sport found that Zampetti’s account was “credible for numerous reasons,” mainly that she provided a detailed recounting of the events, shared this version with her sister, and “has no discernible motive to fabricate a claim against Steven.” In fact, the report concluded, that “due to the close relationship between her family and the Lopez’s, her decision to reveal what occurred has been very difficult for her and has the potential to negatively impact long-standing personal and familial relationships.”
Conflicts of interest
The details are staggering. So why, just months later, were they so easily dismissed?Well, according to the findings from Jean’s arbitration hearing, it’s simply because SafeSport did not put forward a strong enough case.
“Without the testimony of (Meloon, Poe and Gilbert) or any other corroborating witnesses with first-hand knowledge of the events, the panel was left with insufficient evidence to support the allegations by a preponderance of the evidence,” the three-person panel said. “The panel does not have authority to force witnesses to testify in this arbitration. In this matter, the witnesses necessary to support the allegations either refused or were not available to testify at the final hearing. Additionally, Safe Sport did not offer sworn testimony through deposition transcripts or affidavits to provide any testimony under oath of witnesses with first-hand knowledge of the events alleged.”
Of course, this bears another question: Why didn’t the witnesses testify or offer sworn depositions? And this is where things get complicated. Because while the SafeSport investigation has been going on over the past couple of years, Meloon, Poe, Gilbert, and Zampetti, among others, have filed a civil suit against the USOC, USA Taekwondo, and SafeSport, alleging the organizations engaged in forced labor, sex trafficking, and racketeering by obstructing investigations into misconduct allegations against the Lopez brothers. The lawsuit specifically calls out SafeSport for suspending the investigation into the allegations against Jean and Steven to allow them to coach and compete in the 2016 Olympics and 2017 U.S. Championships. It also alleges that SafeSport is not, in fact, independent of the USOC.
That lawsuit means that Joseph Zonies, an attorney representing SafeSport, is simultaneously tasked with prosecuting a case to uphold SafeSport’s ban of the Lopez brothers, while he also defends SafeSport in a civil matter based on the exact same charges. It is, in a word, an ethical mess.
Stephen Estey and Robert Allard, attorneys for some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were certainly concerned about the double duty. Their suggestion was for SafeSport to take its depositions for the civil case, which it has legal authority to do, and then use those depositions as evidence in the arbitration hearing. That way, the women wouldn’t have to go through the trauma of telling their stories twice, and Zonies wouldn’t be able to see the women testify live in the case where he was on their side, only to have a chance to question them under oath again in a few weeks when he was on the other side. But Zonies and SafeSport would not cooperate.
As Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic champion swimmer, attorney, and the CEO of Champion Women, pointed out, having the ban upheld by arbitrators would not have helped SafeSport in its civil case.
“The concern is that the USA Center for SafeSport and the U.S. Olympic Committee and National Governing Bodies are in cahoots to prevent civil liability,” said Hogshead-Makar.
That’s why both Allard and Estey believe that Zonies’ lack of preparation for the arbitration hearings was on purpose.
“What they wanted was them to testify live, so they could have two bites at the apple. That’s all he’s trying to do, and that’s the reason why he didn’t take the depositions when he could,” Allard said. “There is no doubt in my mind that Zonies went into this sham of the hearing knowing he would lose this case, because he wasn’t presenting any testimony on behalf of the victims.”
No trust in the process
When ThinkProgress reached out to SafeSport with questions about the process, we received a response from Kira Wilson of Hill Impact — which bills itself as a marketing, public relations, and lobbying firm that specializes in “defending your reputation in the wake of a crisis.”
“The Center’s resolution process, developed with the advice of experts, is based on the latest best practices and is regularly evaluated,” Wilson said in an email. “Fairness, equity and the well-being of potential victims are core to our response and resolution model, including techniques and tools based on trauma-informed approaches.”
In reference to arbitration, Wilson said that “when the claimant is not participating because they are opting not to or have been advised by counsel, the Center works to exhaust every option using our trauma-informed techniques to encourage their participation.”
Zonies did not respond to a request for comment. In statements to the Orange County Register though, a spokesman for SafeSport stressed that Zonies had provided affidavits for the plaintiffs to sign, but they were not returned. Emails reviewed by ThinkProgress confirm this. However, Zonies did not provide the affidavits until December 9, just a couple of weeks before the hearing.
“There was no deadline of any kind which required that they proceed with this arbitration much less two days after Christmas,” Allard said through email. “They should have continued the hearing to a time when we could get these declarations signed and/or have their depositions taken. In our view, they rushed into this hearing and thereby made it as cumbersome as possible for our clients to both take the time to review and sign these declarations and/or attend a hearing two days after Christmas. They set up my clients to be the ‘fall guys’ for a bad result, which was ultimately obtained.”
These are, of course, bold allegations that center around two related problems: A lack of trust in SafeSport’s independence, and a complete lack of trust in the processes that SafeSport has established.
SafeSport claims to be completely independent from the U.S. Olympic Committee. But reality tells a different story. First of all, it is fully funded by the USOC and National Governing Bodies (NGBs), the entities that oversee individual sports. As Deadspin reported, top USOC officials frequently attended its board meetings and offered guidance and direction during its first two years, and many SafeSport board members have connections to the USOC and NGBs. The organization is understaffed and underfunded, as each investigator has 19 cases to handle. Its overall budget is only $4.6 million. But SafeSport is used by the USOC and NGBs as a shield, wielded excessively whenever anyone accuses them of not taking sexual abuse seriously. It’s supposed to be seen as a step forward.
“[A]bove all, SafeSport is a brand, and it functions as one,” Diana Moskovitz wrote for Deadspin.
But because of its close connection with the USOC, many survivors and legal counsel don’t trust SafeSport to have their best interests at heart. And those who do decide to lean on the organization, in hopes that their abuser will finally face consequences, are often left completely befuddled by the process, particularly when it comes to arbitration.
Hogshead-Makar said that back in 2013, she provided the USOC with recommended guidelines for the U.S. Center for SafeSport. However, it’s clear to her now that they did not take those seriously. She’s particularly confused by why SafeSport issues its initial findings without holding a hearing, even though bylaws say that each defendant is allowed to have a hearing.
“Normally, in every other situation, you don’t issue a final determination until you have a hearing,” she said.
But the arbitration hearings themselves are confusing affairs, from the rushed scheduling to the confusion over who is required to testify to the mere fact that there isn’t consistency across different arbitration panels. For example, Steven’s hearing was overheard by just one arbitrator, while Jean’s was heard by three.
“There’s not a uniform process,” Estey said. “SafeSport is so new, they don’t know what is going on.”
While Wilson said that SafeSport would not comment on matters “to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of those involved, including reporting parties,” she defended its arbitration process. “Since its opening in March of 2017, the US Center for SafeSport issued 365 final decisions, including making 262 individuals permanently ineligible; of those only 11 went to arbitration (arbitrators supported that there were violations in 8 of the 11 matters),” she said.
Thankfully, when it comes to the Lopez brothers, the search for justice continues. Allard, Estey and their clients are still going forward with the civil cases against the Steven and Jean USOC, USAT, and SafeSport. But, as that meanders its way through the courts, the brothers will be able to compete. That’s good news for anyone whose salary and bonuses relies upon success at international competitions, such as officials at the USOC or USAT, because the Lopez brothers are champions. But it’s bad news for anyone who values the safety of athletes and other coaches.
SafeSport was supposed to provide protection. In this case, at least, its protecting the wrong people.
“The way SafeSport came about, and the way USOC set it up, it is not serving its purpose,” Estey said.