Survivors, U.S. Center for Safe Sport clash over Jean Lopez reinstatement

An arbitration panel’s decision this week to lift longtime USA Taekwondo national team coach Jean Lopez’s lifetime ban from the sport for sexual misconduct stunned the American Olympic sports community and left survivors of sexual abuse and their supporters demanding answers.

Lopez’s reinstatement came less than a month after his brother Steven Lopez, the two-time Olympic champion, had a similar ban lifted. Jean Lopez’s reinstatement was especially surprising to longtime athlete safety advocates.

The U.S. Olympic Committee-created and funded U.S. Center for Safe Sport permanently banned Jean Lopez in April for a series of alleged sexual assaults on Team USA athletes, some as young as 16, while they represented their country at the Olympic Games, World Cup events and other major international competitions.

Lopez’s ban, Safe Sport said in its April ruling, was based on “a decades long pattern of sexual misconduct by an older administrator/coach abusing his power to groom, manipulate and, ultimately, sexually abuse younger female athletes.”

But in its ruling to reinstate Jean Lopez Monday, the three-member arbitration panel said their was insufficient evidence to uphold the ban without testimony of the three survivors of his alleged abuse at the Dec. 27 hearing and because Safe Sport officials did not provide the panel with sworn deposition transcripts or affidavits supporting the women’s allegations, according to a confidential Safe Sport document, obtained by the Southern California News group, which outlined the ruling.

The arbitration ruling, which is final and cannot be appealed, has prompted criticism of Safe Sport by attorneys for the survivors and countercharges by Safe Sport officials creating a heated and escalating dispute between sexual abuse survivors and some the nation’s most well known advocates for athlete safety on one side and on the other the Center for Safe Sport, billed as a game changer by the USOC in the fight against sexual abuse in Olympics sports.

The controversy also returns the spotlight on the Center for Safe Sport, which has acknowledged being underfunded and understaffed and faces criticism of being slow to respond to athletes and resolve cases.

Robert Allard, a Bay Area attorney who represents survivors in the Jean Lopez case, was highly critical of Safe Sport’s handling of the Lopez case in general and Joe Zonies, a Denver attorney who represented Safe Sport in the arbitration hearing, in particular. Allard blamed the arbitration panel’s ruling on Zonies and Safe Sport’s failure to provide sworn depositions or affidavits from the three survivors.

Safe Sport officials said Allard and other attorneys for the survivors turned down an offer to sign affidavits the center proposed offering as evidence in arbitration hearing. Statements made by the three survivors, Kay Poe, Mandy Meloon and Heidi Gilbert, during Safe Sport’s initial investigation of Lopez were entered as evidence for the hearing, according the arbitration ruling document.

Dan Hill, a spokesman for Safe Sport, said Allard’s charges were false and could potentially have a chilling effect on future survivors weighing whether come forward to report abuse to Safe Sport.

“Note that the arbitration panel went out of their way to say that the ‘prosecution,’ i.e. Joe Zonies of Safe Sport, did not present any “sworn testimony” of the claimants either by way of declarations or depositions,” Allard said in an email to the SCNG. “We offered to supply both and they refused, demanding live testimony despite the fact that Safe Sport’s ‘Code’ does not require it.

“This decision should remove any doubt that Safe Sport is a complete and utter sham and nothing more than an extension of the USOC, a defendant in this class action case. Mr. Zonies, the ostensible ‘prosecutor’ for Safe Sport, intentionally went into this arbitration empty handed and basically lied down to allow Jean Lopez and his attorney to run right over him in order to achieve the desired result, i.e. the reinstatement of a super star coach who has made millions of dollars for (USA Taekwondo) and the USOC.

“Once again, medals and money is the predominant motivation of the joint venture that is the USOC and Safe Sport and the safety of athletes does not appear to be any type of consideration,” continued Allard, who has represented dozens of survivors of sexual abuse by their coaches and officials. “Congress was dead-on correct when it concluded, after an extensive investigation that Safe Sport is wholly ineffective because it: 1) lacks the appropriate funding, 2) is run by persons who have no idea what they are doing, 3) is not as represented independent of the USOC and 4) lacks transparency.”

Hill said Allard’s criticism of the center was “disappointing” and pointed out that Safe Sport has declared more than 300 individuals permanently ineligible since the center opened in March 2017.

It was particularly “upsetting,” Hill said “to hear the center called a sham.”

“We listened to them, we believed in them,” Hill continued referring to the survivors. “The center wanted its finding to be upheld. We’re upset but we need to deal with facts.”

Zonies did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Center for Safe Sport was added in August to a lawsuit filed by a group of former taekwondo athletes in U.S. District Court in Denver that alleges gross negligence and trafficking by Safe Sport and the USOC for failing to protect female athletes from Jean and Steven Lopez.

Attorneys for Poe, Meloon and Gilbert allege in the lawsuit that the USOC, Safe Sport and USA Taekwondo, the sport’s national governing body, engaged in forced labor, sex trafficking and racketeering under federal RICO statutes by secretly obstructing investigations in allegations of sexual abuse by the Lopez brothers.

The Lopez brothers have denied any wrongdoing.

Allard maintained that depositions from survivors would have strengthened Safe Sport’s case in the arbitration hearing.

“If that is their ‘best’ they should immediately get into another line of business,” Allard said referring to Safe Sport’s presentation in the Lopez arbitration hearing. “Even a novice lawyer would know that you need some kind of admissible evidence substantiating the nature and extent of the sexual abuse.

“The undeniable fact is that Safe Sport is a defendant in this class action and has the right to immediately take the depositions under oath of the many victims of sexual abuse by the Lopez brothers to obtain this information. They failed to do that and therefore intentionally went to a hearing with an unloaded gun knowing that they would fail to confirm the ban issued by USA Taekwondo. There was no reason why they rushed into this process, much less two days after Christmas when most of the world is unavailable, at a time when the depositions had not yet been taken.

“This case shows that Safe Sport is an abomination and should be blown up and replaced with a legitimate adjudicative process run by persons who care, are not conflicted and know something about what they are doing. We certainly don’t have any semblance of that right now and as such children participating in the Olympic movement continue to be vulnerable to sexual predators.”

In 1996, Poe became the youngest member of the U.S. national team at age 14. Safe Sport found that Jean Lopez , who is based in Houston, began sexually assaulting her in 1999 when he was 25 and she was still 16. He continued grooming her and had sexual intercourse later at an international tournament in Croatia that year after she had turned 17, Safe Sport found. Lopez also had sexual intercourse with Poe multiple times at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, according a Safe Sport report.

Meloon was molested by Jean Lopez while she pretended to sleep at a 1997 World Cup event in Cairo, Egypt, Safe Sport found. She was 15 at the time. Meloon was physically abused by Steve Lopez in 2002 and raped by Steve Lopez in 2004, according to Safe Sport.

Jean Lopez likely drugged, and then molested and had Gilbert perform oral sex while they traveled to a World Cup event in Germany in 2003, Safe Sport said. Jean Lopez also told Gilbert he wanted to leave his wife and have “Olympic babies” with her, according to Safe Sport and court documents.

While the women reported Jean Lopez to Safe Sport and cooperated with the center’s investigation, they declined on the advice of their attorneys to testify at the arbitration hearing.

In its ruling, the arbitration panel said the lack of testimony and sworn statements was pivotal in their decision to lift the Jean Lopez’s ban being lifted. Five individuals testified on behalf of Jean Lopez

“The allegations set forth by (Meloon, Poe and Gilbert) are very serious and cannot be and have not been taken lightly,” the panel wrote. “The evidence submitted shows polar opposite viewpoints on each of the allegations presented as well as evidence that contradicted statements provided to Safe Sport. 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 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.

“As it pertains to the (ban) and the allegations relating to (Meloon, Poe and Gilbert), the panels finds that Safe Sport failed to meet its burden by a preponderance of the evidence to establish that Lopez violated the (Safe Sport code) and/or the laws of the State of Texas as set forth to greater detail above. Accordingly, the (ban) is set aside and the sanctions imposed against Lopez are vacated.”

Safe Sport officials said they offered to send Meloon, Poe and Gilbert affidavits for them to sign and return to the center which would then be presented them at the hearing.

“Obviously it’s best if the witnesses can testify at the hearing, if not in person, then by video,” Hill said. “Or they can provide an affidavit which is at least another (option) in presenting the case.”

Safe Sport officials said attorneys for the women declined the offer. Allard acknowledged this.

“It is true that they offered to have our clients execute declarations but we have steadfastly told them that the best way to get the testimony they need is to simply take depositions,” Allard said. “There is nothing holding them back from doing so, especially because Safe Sport is a defendant in this case. We don’t want to subject our clients to duplicative processes such as executing declarations for fear that they will be re-traumatized.”

Said Hill, “For (Allard) to say he doesn’t want his client re-victimized, and then also to say we should’ve deposed them in a civil matter against the center is preposterous. No one who understands trauma informed communication would ever suggest that the center should depose victims in a civil case.”

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Safe Sport added to lawsuit alleging USOC cover up of sexual abuse of taekwondo athletes by Lopez brothers

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