Background Checks? Washington State Judge, Convicted of Assaulting Woman Who Had Appeared in His Court, Went on to Become USA Swimming Coach and Official in South Dakota

Published November 14th, 2012, Uncategorized

How did a former judge in Washington State, who stepped down from the bench and was criminally sentenced on allegations that he raped a woman who had appeared in his court, wind up as head coach of the Watertown (South Dakota) Area Swim Club, as well as a zone coach and an official of the Local Swimming Committee in his state?

To his credit, the former judge, Charles Baechler, openly discussed with me the circumstances of his second career. But Susan Woessner, USA Swimming’s “safe sport director” or “athlete protection officer” — I’ve seen both titles — is giving the familiar silent treatment to this blog’s inquiries about what Baechler’s coaching credentials mean for the organization’s purported system of background checks.

Judge Baechler’s encounter with his female defendant happened in 1998. The woman faced drunk-driving charges, and in the course of hearing them, Baechler also handed her divorce papers served by the woman’s husband. At the conclusion of court business, the judge offered the woman the keys to his lake house. It was there that she said he assaulted her five days later.

Baechler left his seat on the Pend Oreille County district court without admitting the truth of the allegations before a judicial misconduct commission. Baechler then was investigated by the Washington State Patrol at the behest of the attorney general, on referral from the county district attorney. In 1999 Baechler was charged with fourth-degree assault. He eventually was sentenced to two years’ probation and 30 days of electronic home monitoring.

In the intervening years, Baechler has amassed a deep club swimming resume, with coaching positions at the Mitchell Aquatic Club, as well as Watertown. He is active in leadership roles with USA Swimming’s South Dakota Swimming subsidiary.

Yesterday I emailed Baechler, USA Swimming’s Woessner and public relations director Karen Linhart, the Watertown and Mitchell clubs, and a Monument, Colorado, club, the Woodmoor Waves, where Baechler was seen on the pool deck last year. Only Baechler responded:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide this information. Please note that I have forwarded this response to other parties whom I have been informed have been contacted by you regarding the propriety of my position as a coach and non-athlete member of USA Swimming.  Your inquiry obviously touches on a very painful period of my life, a period that has had far reaching effects on me personally and professionally, but it is not something that I hide from, nor that I’ve hidden from the teams that have employed me or from the organization that has certified me.

The assertions that you have relayed are correct to the extent that the nature of the allegation that was made against me in 1998, at the beginning of my second term as District Court Judge of Pend Oreille County, was that of a felony level sexual assault.  Once the allegation was made, there was an exhausting thirteen month investigation involving the Washington State Patrol Detective’s division, the Washington State Attorney General’s office, and the Washington State Judicial Conduct Commission.  I fully cooperated with those investigations, and a plea was entered to the misdemeanor charge of Fourth Degree Simple Assault.  That plea has been legally expunged after successful completion of probation and by operation of law pursuant to statutory authority granted to the Courts of the State of Washington.

It is important to note that examination of court records will demonstrate that the plea which was entered was in no way an admission to the accuracy of the allegations that were made against me.  The plea was an Alford Plea, a mechanism which exists under Washington State law that enables someone accused of a criminal offense to enter a plea in order to complete a plea agreement while still contesting the allegation before the court.  As an experienced journalist I know that you understand that if the State believed that there were credible facts that demonstrated that a felony had been committed by a sitting judge, the State would have vigorously proceeded to prosecute that case.  It was only after the conclusion of the various investigations, examination of the evidence that I had provided, and discovery of significant disparities in various versions of the allegations made against me that the Attorney General approached my attorney and offered to resolve the case by a plea to a misdemeanor offense.  The terms of the plea stipulated that this offense was not categorized as a sexual assault for purposes of the sexual offender registry, that there was a recommendation of no jail time, and that the state recommended that I be granted the ability to expunge the conviction after successful completion of two years probation.  My attorney rightfully urged me to accept the state’s offer which provided a guaranteed result rather than risk an adverse jury verdict, no matter how unlikely.  I followed my attorney’s advice.

It appears that the thrust of your inquiry is whether my employment as a coach, who has been certified by USA Swimming, demonstrates flaws in that organization’s background checks or screening procedures. Obviously, USA Swimming takes the matter of athlete safety very seriously, as a coach I can tell you that it is our first and most serious responsibility.  I can only respond to your concerns as follows.  I personally informed Board members of the two teams who have employed me as their head coach of the circumstances referenced above prior to actually having been hired by those teams.  I have completed all background check requirements of USA Swimming in a timely and accurate manner, including this incident, although by operation of law I could have truthfully said that this conviction did not exist at the time those background checks were completed.  I am under no legal restraint relating to contact with the athletes that I coach, nor am I under any obligation to register or report a conviction that was expunged almost thirteen years ago to any legal authority or law enforcement agency.  I fully comply with and support all rules relating to the regulation of appropriate contact between coaches and athletes that are in place as the result of USA Swimming’s concern for it’s athletes.  I have never been the subject of inquiry or complaint, formal or informal, regarding any contact with my athletes.

This has been a devastating episode in my life.  I still deal with the resulting depression and sense of loss on almost a daily basis; not always successfully. However, despite efforts by people who have used this episode over the years to discredit my reputation, I believe that all things happen for a reason and I’m very proud to be part of this great sport.  It would be tragic to try to depict USA Swimming as anything other than an exemplary organization when it comes to monitoring our athlete’s safety and their environments.

I wrote back to all the parties of the exchange:

I commend you on your thorough response, which I will reproduce in full.

It seems to me, however, that there is still a question for USA Swimming to answer: Does an Alford plea disqualify a prospective coach? Section 304.3.6 strongly suggests that the answer is yes:

“Conviction of, imposition of a deferred sentence for, or any plea of guilty or no contest at any time, past or present, or the existence of any pending charges, for (i) any felony, (ii) any offense involving use, possession, distribution or intent to distribute illegal drugs or substances, (iii) any crime involving sexual misconduct, or (iv) any criminal offense against a minor.”

Ms. Woessner — What say you?

More Baechler:

Please note that for purposes of applying a rule or statute such as section 304.3.6 referenced below, the controlling factor is the statute supporting the conviction, not the nature of the allegation.  The conviction was for Fourth Degree Assault which is not a felony, not an offense involving the use, possession,distribution or intent to distribute illegal drugs or substances, nor is it a crime involving sexual misconduct. The language of the actual statute defines whether a conviction would fall into one of these categories.  There are crimes which exist under the Washington criminal code which address those areas, they were not charged, and I was not convicted of any of those crimes.

More Muchnick:

I’m still waiting for the direct voice of USA Swimming — Ms. Woessner’s or Mr. [Chuck] Wielgus’s [executive director] — on the question posed in my last message. If, as you say, you didn’t conceal the 1998-99 events when you applied for swimming positions, then I hold nothing against you for articulating legalistic arguments in defense of your coaching credentials. But I want to hear the safe sport perspective, vis-a-vis this point, from the horse’s mouth.

Baechler’s explanation is more creative than persuasive. USA Swimming’s background check standard is any crime involving sexual misconduct — not whether the word “sex” is in the title of the ultimate judicial disposition. The Alford plea by Baechler did succeed in keeping his mug shot off the Internet sex registry sites, but is that good enough? Does he have a right to carry on with his life via a discretionary hire as a club swimming coach, or does his criminal record appropriately limit his future employment options?

Does USA Swimming lay the blanket on the side of “better safe than sorry” when it comes to credentialing the adults who have thousands of hours a year of authority over and supervision of children? Or have Wielgus, Woessner, et al. gone into the libertarian-borderline-coaches-application-advocacy business?

I don’t know the answers to these last questions. I don’t know because the Olympic Committee’s national governing body for our competitive youth swimming program, in which 300,000 athletes and 12,000 coaches participate, won’t say.

Irv Muchnick