by Irvin Muchnick
A lawyer for USA Swimming, who would go on to become the acclaimed head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), counseled the group’s 2001 investigation of a confessed molester coach who jumped bail on 14 criminal counts and returned to his native Venezuela, where he has continued to coach ever since.
Travis Tygart handled the matter for USA Swimming as an associate at the Denver law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen (now Bryan Cave) even though the coach, Simon Daniel “Danny” Chocron, coached at the Bolles prep school in Jacksonville, Florida, which was Tygart’s alma mater. Further, Tygart was part of the team of swimming officials who kept a lid on publicity of the Chocron case — and would oversee the publication of no information at all about scores of banned coaches for another nine years.
Documentation of the Tygart-Chocron scenario is among thousands of pages of internal USA Swimming records that were subpoenaed by a California office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the collapse of years of efforts by the organization to avoid producing them in discovery in a civil lawsuit by a sex abuse victim. In 2014 Concussion Inc. acquired many of the documents from a government source and began publishing stories based on them, including this one.
Danny Chocron’s 68-page USA Swimming dossier is now viewable at http://muchnick.net/chocron.pdf. Complete chronological headline links to our historical coverage of Chocron, and the role of Tygart in USA Swimming’s administrative prosecution through its National Board of Review, are at the bottom of this article.
Tygart’s actions — and inactions — are instructive in the wake of the publication by the Indianapolis Star of 5,600 pages of internal documents exposing abuse and cover-up at USA Gymnastics, another U.S. Olympic Committee national sport governing body (NGB). Recent reporting by the Star and the Washington Post has spurred new proposed legislation by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California, that would require NGBs to report to police all allegations of sex abuse. The proposal has garnered bipartisan support.
[Upcoming at Concussion Inc.: “Senator Feinstein’s Amateur Sports Sex Abuse Legislation, Though Welcome, Is Still Too Much About the Sex and Too Little About the Abuse.”]
The Chocron story is also of interest because it highlights how abusive coaches in the world of youth sports slide from country to country to elude justice, and are enabled by national bodies whose concerns stop at the border’s edge and at the elimination of immediate threats to their own images and legal exposure.
Currently, this reporter is litigating under the Freedom of Information Act to acquire more records from the American immigration file of rapist Irish Olympic swim coach George Gibney, who fled to the U.S. in the 1990s after evading dozens of criminal counts of his molestation of underage athletes in his charge, and has been living here ever since. After privately reviewing 20 disputed documents from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on how Gibney acquired his visa and green card — and more recently, how his application for naturalized citizenship got processed — a senior federal judge, Charles R. Breyer, ruled in our favor in Muchnick v. Department of Homeland Security. In his ruling, Judge Breyer suggested that the secret papers might illuminate how the American Swimming Coaches Association “greased the wheels” for Gibney’s passage. Last month the Trump administration’s Department of Justice filed notice of its intent to appeal Breyer’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Finally, the Chocron documents heighten scrutiny of Tygart and USADA, and call into question whether the USOC’s National Center for Safe Sport — which is set to begin operation next month, and for which USADA has been cited as a model — can be truly independent and effective, in lieu of Congressional oversight and reform of the Amateur Sports Act.
Tygart was solicited for comment for this story through USADA’s media relations coordinator. In 2014 USADA’s spokesperson, Annie Skinner, had issued this statement on behalf of Tygart: “USADA remains focused on our anti-doping mission and we are not expecting to be involved in any oversight of the USOC Center for Safe Sport, and therefore I have no information to share regarding any plans the USOC may have regarding the center.”
Later, one of Skinner’s predecessors at USADA, Nick Esares, trolled me on Twitter. Skinner then said in an email, “Obviously, when you tweet a baseless article as you did those who know your information is inaccurate may have the courage to call you out on it. They have every right to do so.” (Skinner is now the communications director for the attorney general of Colorado.)
The 68-page USA Swimming dossier on Chocron daylights the following facts:
Danny Chocron, now 43 years old, was a 25K open water swimming champion who, at age 27, was on the staff of the Bolles Sharks club at the Bolles School aquatic center.
Two Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrest reports, on March 2 and March 7, 2001, detail the charges against him.
In the first report, a 16-year-old male swimmer said Chocron “masturbated in front of him and … also encouraged him to masturbate in front of the suspect.” On another occasion, “the suspect showed him pornographic video tapes prior to them masturbating. He continued to explain that he has performed penile/oral intercourse on the suspect and that the suspect has reciprocated him by performing penile/oral intercourse on him.”
In a police interrogation, Simon Chocron made a voluntary statement admitting to these allegations.
The second sheriff’s office report five days later said Chocron also admitted having had “consensual penile/vaginal intercourse with an additional minor, female.” This 17-year-old then reported having sex with Chocron three times at his apartment.
Chocron was taken to Duval County jail before being released on $250,000 bail. Police seized videotapes and computer equipment from his apartment.
On March 8, a third victim came forward, leading to additional felony charges, for a total of 14.
In late March, Chocron missed two court appearances. Authorities assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that even though Chocron had surrendered his passport, he had easy access back to Venezuela, where he is famous. And Venezuela has no extradition treaty with the U.S.
(According to swimming sources, there was actually an intervening step, whereby Chocron first fled to Spain, with which the U.S. does have extradition reciprocity. But Chocron managed to leave Spain for Venezuela just ahead of efforts to arrest him.)
In May 2001 USA Swimming sent, to Chocron’s various speculated addresses in Jacksonville, North Miami, and Caracas, notice of a National Board of Review hearing on his permanent expulsion.
In June lawyers for Chocron victims wrote to Dale Neuburger, a USA Swimming board member and a vice president of Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), the international swimming federation. Neuburger is a figure with his own troubling history in swimming’s corruption and priority of money over athlete safety. A partner in an Indianapolis firm, TSE Consulting, Neuburger has helped steer event site contracts to municipalities and countries that hire him. At one such event, the 2010 FINA 10K open water race in the United Arab Emirates, a 26-year-old American swimmer, Fran Crippen, died in what critics say were scandalously warm and unsafe Persian Gulf waters.
A March 7, 2001, email by Jim Kelly, then general chairman of Florida Swimming — USA Swimming’s regional affiliate — sums up how USOC governing bodies approach what is their real fear in coach abuse stories: bad publicity.
In the email, Kelly talks about being solicited for comment by an Associated Press reporter. He says he “told them I hadn’t heard anything about it, which was true at the time.”
In 2002 Travis Tygart would move from Holme Roberts & Owen to the staff of USADA. He became chief executive officer of USADA in 2007. Tygart is best known for bringing down bicycling champion Lance Armstrong for doping.
Tygart, who is from Jacksonville and attended Bolles School, has refused to say why this connection didn’t cause him to recuse himself from his assignment to counsel swimming’s review board’s investigation of Chocron.
Indeed, Tygart — whom the FBI-subpoenaed documents confirm also handled numerous other coach abuse cases for USA Swimming — has refused to entertain any questions at all about this charged subject: whether it is OK for American sports authorities to allow figures like Chocron simply to become the problem of some other country (and its youth athletes); and why it was acceptable for USA Swimming not to publish its list of banned coaches until 2010 — only after CEO Chuck Wielgus was embarrassed in two fumbling and misleading national television interviews.
Danny Chocron, formerly employed by Travis Tygart’s old school, is now one of 140 coaches on the banned list.