French judge charges International Skating Union with misconduct

Tuesday, April 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Suspended in Salt Lake City, the French judge at the heart of the Olympic skating scandal is fighting back with charges of bias and misconduct against the International Skating Union.

A week before a hearing at ISU headquarters, Marie-Reine Le Gougne's lawyers Monday released a 24-page letter to the ISU attacking its ``hasty, knee-jerk decision'' to suspend her and award a second gold medal to the Canadian pairs team.

The lawyers contended she was suspended without conclusive evidence of misconduct and that ISU investigators conducted ``biased'' interviews in which they ``grilled'' Le Gougne, ``attempting to trap her in a confession, but permitted her accusers to make outrageous, unsubstantiated and speculative accusations without any follow-up questions.''

The attorneys said the ISU broke precedent by throwing out all the judges' votes, not just Le Gougne's, in awarding a second gold to Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, and that the combined results of all the judges, even with Le Gougne's marks canceled, still would have made the Russians, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, gold-medal winners.

That, the attorneys said, suggested the ISU's actions were ``hypocritical, inconsistent and discriminatory.''

The ISU denied Le Gougne due process, the attorneys argued, by failing to provide her a chance to cross-examine witnesses during the investigation and by not requiring all the judges to appear at the ISU council hearing next Monday and Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In a letter to the ISU, Swiss judge Christine Blanc said Le Gougne promised at Skate Canada in November she would favor the Russians for the Olympic gold, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. Blanc joined three other judges who have accused Le Gougne or the French federation president Didier Gailhaguet of improper conduct.

Blanc said Le Gougne wanted to reciprocate for past favors that Russian judges supposedly granted the French, the newspaper said.

``I do hope I can do something for honesty and my sport,'' Blanc told the newspaper. ``It's very sad for the other judges who are honest and good and right.''

The lawyers for the French judge said the ISU refused to provide ``potentially exculpatory evidence'' concerning the financial motives of the ISU figure skating technical committee and its chairwoman, Sally Stapleford, to pressure Le Gougne to accuse Gailhaguet of influencing her vote.

By refusing to hear accusations of misconduct against Stapleford, referee Ron Pfenning and Canadian judge Benoit Lavoie, Le Gougne's lawyers said, the ISU acted in a ``discriminatory manner, and is selectively prosecuting only those individuals that the ISU feels public pressure to prosecute.''

Attorneys Maxwell Miller and Erik Christiansen insisted ``there is no credible, consistent and uncoerced evidence of any misconduct'' on her part in voting for the Russian pair.

``The ISU made a political decision under pressure from the IOC and the North American media to ignore its own rules, to invalidate the marks of all of its judges, and then to single out one judge to take the blame for all of the judges involved in the event,'' the attorneys said.

They claimed the only credible evidence of misconduct is that of Stapleford ``in lobbying judges to vote for the Canadians and in retaliating against Ms. Le Gougne and the French federation when Ms. Le Gougne did not obey Ms. Stapleford.''

Stapleford, a Canadian-born British official whose father was on the Canadian Olympic team, told ISU investigators in Salt Lake City that she witnessed an outburst by Le Gougne after the pairs event in which Le Gougne said she was pressured by Gailhaguet into voting for the Russian couple.

Several others, including Jon Jackson, an American lawyer and figure skating judge who was present but not working at the Olympics, said in Salt Lake City they also witnessed Le Gougne's outburst and that her complaints of pressure from Gailhaguet were spontaneous.

Le Gougne's attorneys told the ISU they will present evidence to show that Stapleford pressured judges to vote for the Canadian pair and that Pfenning told judges not to give the Russian pair anything higher than a 5.8 because he did not want ``the door closed'' for other skaters.

The attorney for Pfenning and Jackson, Benjamin Kaplan, declined to discuss the claims made by Le Gougne's lawyers.

Stapleford, who could not be reached for comment, previously denied Le Gougne's allegations.

On Feb. 12, the morning after the pairs free program, Pfenning gave a letter to all the judges and read it aloud, accusing the five judges who voted for the Russian pair as being dishonest. At that point, according to Le Gougne's attorneys, many judges started crying, including Le Gougne, who said she was under pressure from Gailhaguet.

The next day, Le Gougne met with ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta and general secretary Fredi Schmid and signed a letter written by Schmid in which she acknowledged she had said she been under pressure from Gailhaguet but added that she misspoke while in an emotional state. She said she voted for the Russians on merit and had not spoken of any deal with Russian officials.

The ISU came under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, and especially its president, Jacques Rogge, to resolve the situation speedily.

On Feb. 15, Rogge and Cinquanta announced Sale and Pelletier would receive gold medals.

Rogge said he didn't think the Olympic movement was damaged by the scandal ``because it was resolved fast. This is definitely a closed matter.''

Le Gougne's attorneys, who could take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport if they lose in Lausanne, contend it was closed too fast and the matter is far from closed.