by Irvin Muchnick
It’s only natural to get caught up in the salacious background of Susan Woessner’s resignation three days ago from the staff of USA Swimming, seven and a half years after she was hired to run its shiny new “Safe Sport” program.
But those of us with an eye on the future of detoxing kid sports — whether it’s through the brick-by-brick reimagining of procedures as codified by the Safe Sport Act of 2018, or through figuratively burning down the house of the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs — know that the sex scandal that ended Woessner’s mediocre career in athletics administration is just the appetizer.
The main course involving this bland and only passively malignant figure — a bit player in the vast criminal ensemble that is swimming’s pandemic of coach predation, its self-dealing insurance clean-up operations, and its significant piece of the global network of abuse and cover-up — should be told in courtrooms and in Congressional hearing rooms.
Woessner’s resignation letter offers up the familiar cocktail of a corporate quitter: one weak shot of self-sacrifice so as not to become a distraction, topped by a strong maraschino cherry of denial of the underlying accusation. She did not have sex with that man! The man being Sean Hutchison, the former coach and boyfriend, and now the alleged long-time groomer/abuser, of former Olympic swimming champion Ariana Kukors. Prior to helping direct an investigation of Hutchison in her first months on the job, Woessner owns up to having engaged in a previously undisclosed “kissing” session with Hutchison “on a single occasion.”
The flowcharts showing exactly who shtupped whom, and in what combinaton and sequence pertinent to a review of USA Swimming’s appalling performance in respect to protecting children from predatory adults, will eventually come into focus. Or not.
In the meantime, I’ve been re-reading Woessner’s depositions in assorted civil lawsuits against USA Swimming by abuse victims. All of them exhibit the Magellan-like logic routes of bureaucrats everywhere, as well as the hazy veneer of studious coaching by $1,000-an-hour lawyers at the Bryan Cave firm. None has passages as aggressively repulsive as “Yeah, I think I’ve heard the name [George Gibney],” by Woessner’s late boss, executive director Chuck Wielgus. Or the poker-faced claim by long-time USA Swimming board member and former president Dale Neuburger that he didn’t know Mitch Ivey had just been busted by a major report on ESPN.
But one of Woessner’s depositions, her very first, has substance as well as shucking and jiving, and for that reason it merits the special attention of Congressional investigators.
For in that one, she gives the game away; she reveals, albeit inadvertently, that USA Swimming’s representations of Safe Sport as any kind of independent process are a sham, a scam, a fraud, a lie of such astounding premeditation that, in a world of justice, the hundreds of thousands of members of the organization — not just its hundreds of direct abuse victims, past and present — would be lined up for damages in addition to dues refunds.
These moments occurred during her questioning in Colorado Springs, on June 2, 2011. The victim suing USA Swimming in this case happened to be “Jane Doe.” I don’t want to make bad guesses as to all the various Jane Does who passed through the thousands of pages of background papers in front of me. But readers will recall that a particular Jane Doe had been raped and impregnated by her coach in California, Andy King. In 2010 Wielgus told ESPN that King, now in state prison for this and many related heinous sex crimes against children, had not been “on USA Swimming’s radar” until a year earlier, at the time of his prosecution and trial. In fact, in 2003 Wielgus had been presented a complaint against King — and did nothing other than order the complaint kept confidential. This Wielgus lie was the core of the 2014 petition campaign that succeeded in getting the International Swimming Hall of Fame to rescind his scheduled induction there.
Back to Woessner. Her deposition is viewable at http://muchnick.net/woessnerdep.pdf. The gobsmacking and incriminating passages start at page 26, when she is asked to describe the intake procedures for complaints in her new role:
“It does vary by what the substance of the complaint is about, because I — I get a wide range of things. What I generally try — it really does depend on what the complaint is. But I try to — I’m trying to best describe it — figure out if there’s additional people I should talk to, if they’re — it’s kind of my job to — well, let me start over.
I guess I try to figure out what the next step is, if that makes any sense, because there’s several next steps possible. But ultimately if there does appear — I try to gather enough information to determine if there’s been a violation of Code of Conduct or not. I — I let Chuck know, per our rulebook, the executive director is notified.
And then if — if we have enough information to look like there needs to be an investigation or there are people to talk to relative to an investigation, we — we go forward with that process.”
The italics are mine. To repeat: “I let Chuck know, per our rulebook, the executive director is notified. And then [if it looks like there needs to be an investigation] we go forward with that process.”
Chuck is Chuck Wielgus.
Woessner is confirming two compelling elements of Safe Sport that the public didn’t and still doesn’t understand. First, notwithstanding the hype attendant to the set-up of the program, the director of Safe Sport (at first called the “athlete protection officer”) had no independent authority to act on complaints. None. She was, and whoever replaces Woessner is and will be, a glorified secretary.
Prior to Woessner’s hire, in 2009-10, during the case of Jesse Stovall, the statutory rapist coach out of Bear Swimming in Berkeley, I had corresponded with Wielgus; sometimes I heard back directly from Wielgus, sometimes from an assistant named Christine Schemmel. Susan Woessner was just the new Christine Schemmel. Unlike Schemmel, Woessner had no stenographic responsibilities beyond fielding abuse complaints. But with respect to those abuse complaints, her duties were to write them down in a notebook and, “per our rulebook,” notify the executive director — the one who would go on to determine, as he had always done, whether information rose to the level of going forward with an investigation.
(Readers interested in the Jesse Stovall case and my involvement in it — thankfully, my own daughter was not Stovall’s victim — can read this 2010 cover story and follow-up in the East Bay Express: https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/swimming-in-sex-abuse/Content?oid=1678180; https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/berkeley-swim-coach-sentenced-for-sex-abuse/Content?oid=1725260.)
Perhaps the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, or another investigative entity, will be interested to learn that USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, at least as recently as 2011 (and the totality of discovery papers indicates as late as at least 2013 or 2014) personally handed down every decision as to whether a complaint would escalate into a formal investigation.
Today the executive director is officially called the chief executive officer. Wielgus’s CEO successor is Tim Hinchey. This week, in the quarters of the swimming community that remain in curdled denial, Hinchey is viewed as some sort of hero for accepting Woessner’s resignation. The obvious truth is that Hinchey did what he did in response to the demand of Bob Allard, attorney for Ariana Kukors. Hinchey also booted out Pat Hogan, the club development director, whose far blacker cover-up arts across decades made Woessner’s earnest deflections look like amateur hour.
Well, I say baloney to such a low bar of praise for Hinchey.
What Congress and all of us should be asking at this point is the following: Has Hinchey also been personally ruling on the disposition of initial complaints? If so, then let’s have a list of them since he started. Such an accounting should have been central to the “briefing” Hinchey gave Energy and Commerce earlier this month. Also to the questions of the ongoing investigation, as stated in the bipartisan leadership’s January 26 letter: “Once the sexual abuse allegations were reported to USA Swimming, how were the allegations handled?”
In her 2011 deposition, Woessner is asked a second and a third and a fourth time about the initial complaint stage, and she gives the same answer:
“Q. […] Who makes the decision since you’ve been in this position to conduct or not conduct an investigation through an outside investigator.
A. Per our rules, it’s the executive director’s decision to make an investigation.
Q. So you take down the information, you get as much information as you can, and then do you then confer with Mr. Wielgus and he makes the decision as to whether or not to pass it through to an investigator?
A. We — we talk about those things, yes.
Q. Okay. And what do you guys talk about when the two of you talk?
A. I — I keep him apprised of — of matters that I’m working with.
Q. And at some point in time do you ask him, Should I refer this out for investigation or does he volunteer that information? How does that work?
A. Sure. We discuss the best solution to whatever matter we’re speaking about.
Q. Okay. So he makes the decision after consulting with you to refer to an investigator; is that right
A. Yes. Sorry.”
Woessner didn’t stop with spilling that Wielgus told her what to do after she shuffled five doors down the hall at One Olympic Plaza, to the boss’s office, notebook in hand, with grim intake details of the latest complaint. She also revealed that after a matter that had been escalated to a full investigation reached the point of assembling a complete file of information, often via a private investigator, it was again Wielgus who decided whether the file would be forwarded to the National Board of Review for a Code of Conduct hearing:
“We receive the investigative summary, so it’s a summary of the — the interviews that the investigator has completed, whatever amount of interviews those are that is dated and specific and have specific information over who was — who was interviewed. We read those.
And I — I discuss with Chuck, and he — Chuck is the executive director. He ultimately — and I might discuss with him and give him a suggestion one way or the other of my — of my feeling about the investigation. And ultimately he makes a decision to go forward with a request of National Board of Review in the name of USA Swimming.”
There’s your Susan Woessner story, folks.
She is not just the tawdry kiss-and-no-tell enabler of Sean Hutchison who had to go.
She is also the agent with the pretty face, on behalf of USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s collected national sport governing bodies, of a long-running and systematic fraud on America’s young athletes and their families.