by Irvin Muchnick
As the U.S. Center for SafeSport opened operations, there was disagreement among people of good will as to whether it would be effective or sufficiently resourced or fully independent of the U.S. Olympic Committee and its national sport governing bodies. I don’t think anyone, however, thought the center was in line to replicate, virtually note for note, the worst of the past practices of NGB sexual abuse investigations.
Yet that is precisely what appears to be happening to Sarah Ehekircher, whose complaint of having been groomed and abused as a teen swimmer by her coach at the time, Scott MacFarland, was handled shamefully by USA Swimming in 2010 and is now being handled by the U.S. Center with shockingly parallel callousness and bias.
When Ehekircher’s representative in Congress, Diana DeGette of Colorado, catches up with this information, DeGette will have to ask herself if this is what she and 405 of her House colleagues were signing up for when they passed the Safe Sport Act earlier this year.
DeGette is also a member of the investigation and oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is probing the supposedly new-and-improved practices of Olympic groups. The Ehekircher horror show played out last week the very day she returned from a trip to Washington to observe the Energy and Commerce hearing testimony of USA Swimming’s CEO, Tim Hinchey, and others.
Back in Denver, Ehekircher had her first face-to-face meeting with her investigator for the U.S. Center. Coming nearly three months after the original intake of the complaint, the meeting was a con job.
For starters, Ehekircher was directed not to the office of the center, but rather to that of the local Zonies law firm, the agency’s outside counsel. Ehekircher also was told that the investigator, Kathleen Smith, would be accompanied by another person but that this person would only be there for the purpose of taking faithful notes of what was said at the meeting.
This second person turned out to be one Michael Henry, whose LinkedIn page identifies him as “Legal Affairs Director at U.S. Center for SafeSport” — see https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-henry-76290573/. (I believe, but am not certain, that Henry also at one point was so listed at the center’s website, https://safesport.org; I just checked there but did not see him.)
According to Ehekircher, Henry told her that he was not a practicing lawyer. So what is he, then — a stray duckbill platypus?
In Ehekircher’s account, the meeting started with an extension of her impasse with the center — as documented in his emails with investigator Smith and earlier reported by Concussion Inc. — over release of the 2010 USA Swimming National Board of Review hearing of her original complaint. The center claims that a mysterious “confidentiality agreement,” to which she was not a party, bars sharing the document with her. No big deal, though — she’s just the complainant!
From this foundation of non-transparency, Ehekircher said, the investigator proceeded to cross-examine her in the exact same progression she had confronted in 2010. She was grilled for a chronology of not just the central event of the complaint — her first sex with coach MacFarland, when she was 17, after an out-of-town meet in California, where this act would be classified as statutory rape — but also nearly everything in her life before and after. The session was captured on audiotape. It added up to an outrageous breach of good practices in the early stage of a sexual abuse investigation, especially given that Ehekircher did not have her own lawyer present.
Concussion Inc. asked for comment on this story from Henry and SafeSport’s CEO, Shellie Pfohl. Dan Hill of Hill Impact, the center’s Virginia-based communications, public relations, and lobbying consultant, emailed back: “We do not comment on active matters, even when factually inaccurate information is disseminated by parties on either side. Our approach is based on best practices, which includes caring more about professional, fairness and the integrity of the process, than responding to misrepresentations. We are here to serve athletes through championing respect and ending abuse in sport.”
Notably, Hill did not dispute our report that the director of legal affairs was at the Ehekircher-investigator meeting, nor that the interview was audio-recorded.
I’m using the construction “Ehekircher said” and similar disclaimers because I, myself, was not at the meeting for a first-hand report. Obviously, I’m publishing this article because I believe what Sarah is telling me, just as I believe the whole of her account about MacFarland and about swimming’s handling of her complaint at the very kickoff of its heavily hyped “safe sport” turning of a new leaf. I have been saying this consistently in the series of articles linked below.
But I also want to emphasize that 100 percent backup for Ehekircher’s story is not necessary in order for disinterested third parties to recognize that something terribly wrong is going on here. I don’t know if the U.S. Center for SafeSport is in USA Swimming’s pocket or is merely conducting itself unprofessionally and incompetently. Either way, abuse agencies and law enforcement departments have gone to school over the last generation on the proper way to conduct an investigation, and this is not it. You don’t lure an alleged victim to your law office. You don’t sneak the top legal executive of the agency into the interview on false pretenses. You don’t tape-record the first interview with the alleged victim as though she were the one under immediate and exhaustive and nitpicking interrogation.
The credibility of the U.S. Center for SafeSport center started out as shaky. In the absence of a better explanation and a path to more faithful processing of the Sarah Ehekircher file, that tiny reservoir is going from shaky to shot.
THE FULL SERIES