Flashback: Tim Joyce on the Ken Stopkotte Case and the Plight of Swimming Whistleblowers

Published February 2nd, 2013, Uncategorized

Yesterday we reported the new lawsuit in Indiana by whistleblower coach Ken Stopkotte, alleging retaliation, defamation, and malicious prosecution.The story and video at the Indianapolis ABC affiliate, rtv6, are viewable at http://www.theindychannel.com/news/local-news/former-fishers-swim-coach-files-defamation-lawsuit-after-charges-dismissed.

Last year my colleague Tim Joyce wrote the most comprehensive account of what Stopkotte did and what happened to him. The article is reproduced below with Joyce’s permission.

 

THOSE WHO ATTEMPT TO CHALLENGE THE BLUE WALL OF SILENCE AT USA SWIMMING FACE INSTANT RETALIATION

The Swift and Effective Destruction of a Whistleblower’s Reputation
by Tim Joyce

“All politics is local” — the immortal words spoken by former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, describing his notoriously messy profession. In actuality, though, his quote could apply to almost any national organization that is also involved at the local level. And such is the case with USA Swimming.

The following article details events in the state of Indiana over the last decade. While Colorado Springs is the home of the United States Olympic Committee and USA Swimming, and California has been the breeding ground for countless Olympic swimming champions, Indiana can be considered the third leg of the triangle that constitutes the loci of power of the Olympic swimming establishment. It is the home of USA Diving, USA Track and Field, USA Gymnastics, and other national sporting organizations. Within the same building as some of these organizations in downtown Indianapolis is also the office of TSE Consulting, an extremely influential corporation that has extensive connections with USA Swimming and is involved in all phases of Olympic planning.
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Ken Stopkotte had heard enough.

So in the fall of 2009, after the arrest of Chris Wheat for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl at the Lawrence Swim Club in Lawrence, Indiana, Stopkotte, a swim coach himself (and eventual 2010 Indiana Swim Coach of the Year) made the bold move and went to the local Indianapolis media and spoke of the disturbing pattern of sexual abuse that was emerging within the ranks of USA Swimming.

How could Stopkotte not speak up after suspecting that Wheat was a problem? While the head coach of the Indiana Zone All Star Team, Stopkotte reportedly confronted Tony Young, the Sports Development Director at Indiana Swimming, and told Young that he didn’t want Wheat on his staff based on rumors he had heard from female swimmers. Young ignored Stopkotte’s warning, with Young saying something to the effect of “take it or leave it.”

Stopkotte was adamant that speaking out to the media was the right thing to do in an effort to shed light on this growing crisis within the sport; yet he was also aware that he would face immediate and vicious blowback from many others in the swim world.

After all, Stopkotte thought, USA Swimming had attempted to destroy former USA Swimming Vice President Mike Saltzstein after he came forward about the issue of abuse in swimming (as referenced in my first article in this series) and Saltzstein had a flawless reputation. Note on Saltzstein: after USA Swimming tried to remove him from the USA Swimming Officials List, an independent arbiter ruled that USA Swimming’s action were “arbitrary, capricious, and in violation” of Salzstein’s right “to participate as an international referee under the Sports Act.”

Indeed, within a few months Stopkotte was suspended as a coach from both Indiana Swimming and USA Swimming, for violating rules regarding the submitting of times for swim meets, somethingStopkotte admits to doing. The infractions that Stopkotte owned up to occurred in February, 2010, just before he went on ABC News 20/20, in which the USA Swimming sex abuse scandal became a national story for a very brief time.

But it got even worse for Stopkotte. He would eventually spend a week in jail, in solitary confinement, and then waited out 18 months of legal limbo on a bogus charge, after being accused of stealing $17,000 from a local swim club. The charges were baseless and eventually dropped but the damage had been done andStopkotte’s name was tarnished (I’m continuing an investigation into who set up Stopkotte on the ridiculous theft charges and will report back with my findings). USA Swimming had their ideal complainant – a man who accused the organization of wrongdoing but was easily labeled as a violator in his own right; plausible deniability.

Stopkotte had committed a far more severe crime than the aforementioned administrative shortcut – he told the truth about abuse, something that USA Swimming was terrified of having exposed.

There are those in Indiana who stated that Stopkotte only went on 20/20 to get attention for himself in a way of avoiding the administrative charges against him; but this argument holds no ground as Stopkotte had already spoken to the media months before.

And, more significantly, the aggressiveness in which the swimming authorities pursued Stopkotte was utterly without precedent. Their zeal in ruining his life is laid out in stark contrast to numerous other times when they turned a blind eye to both abuse and other instances of criminal behavior by those in the ranks of USA Swimming. It’s clear all along that stifling any chatter amongst those in the swimming world regarding abuse was priority number one at USA Swimming. In fact, USA Swimming went into crisis control mode months before Stopkotte went public.

A letter from lawyer Bernard “Buddy” Pylitt, of the firm Katz & Korin in Indianapolis, was sent to Arlene McDonald of Indiana Swimming on August 26th, 2009. In the letter Pylitt — who was representing both USA Swimming and Indiana Swimming – makes clear that transparency would not be the order of the day and that keeping quiet issues of sexual abuse would be the official policy. Stated Plyitt, “I request that any inquiry to or from any Board Member, parent, swimmer, or from the media be directed to my attention.“ The letter was in reference to the recent publicity surrounding former swim coach Brian Hindson, who was eventually sentence to 33 year in prison for secretly videotaping girls swimmers. Obviously Pylitt had a job to do, to defend the swimming establishment.

After Stopkotte appeared on Indiana television in October, Pylitt sent off another angry letter to Arlene McDonald of Indiana Swimming. “A report aired last night on WRTV (Channel 6) during which a member of the Indiana Swimming Board of Directors was interviewed and stated that the recent arrest of Chris Wheat was ‘not an isolated incident’ and that there ‘needs to be a tougher policy’ based upon the fact that ‘safety policies are insufficient’ … such public statement made and opinions given by an unauthorized representative and member of your Board are totally inappropriate …”

So, given the opportunity to get everything out in the open, USA Swimming decided it was best to keep things under wraps, again. While they may have thought it a sound legal policy at the time, it was also the modus operandi of USA Swimming – their go-to instincts were of cover-up and secrecy rather than transparency.

What makes this even more bizarre and one of those cases of “I wouldn’t believe this even if it was a movie”, there was also a letter written to Indiana Swimming following Stopkotte’s appearance on 20/20 by a coach who was also Secretary of Indiana Swimming and a Board member. Here is part of what he wrote (I kept the emphasis from the original letter, but corrected the numerous spelling errors):

“As a longtime member of both USA Swimming and Indiana Swimming I watched with great interest the article on 20/20 this evening… TO MY GREAT DISMAY I watched as an elected representative of our organization sought to sensationalize a horrific situation, and willingly brought false allegations against our sport and Indiana Swimming … I hereby ask for the resignation of Ken Stopkotte from the Indiana Swimming Board of Directors for willfully breaking the USA Swimming code of conduct, for ignoring legal counsel of Indiana Swimming and for attempting to gain personal profit from a horrific situation.”

That last statement is incredibly ridiculous as Stokotte had nothing to gain by having the guts to go forward.

So beyond this coach’s refusal to acknowledge the issue of abuse and why it’s important for openness to rule the day, there’s something far more troubling here; according to multiple sources, this coach, four years earlier, was caught embezzling $30,000 in funds from the swim club where he worked. But it was covered up as his parents, who are both high ranking employees of USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, when they paid back the money. Additionally, this coach was free to work in the swim community, in fact was promoted several times, before being exposed by websites some four years after the theft.

And Ken Stopkotte is falsely charged with theft and had to endure humiliating time in a jail cell for something he didn’t do? And he was banned from coaching for an administrative breach, something he admits to, while another coach commits real theft but it’s covered up because of connections to the powerful at USA Swimming in Colorado Springs.

Stopkotte himself has come to terms, at least somewhat with all that’s happened. When I asked him if he’ll coach again, he said, “One day at a time. I’m prepared that it could be next to impossible. I have a passion to coach again, but because of the baggage from the past two years, I’ve accepted that it will probably never be my livelihood or full-time job. Coaching is like a drug. I love coaching kids and helping them reach their goals. It was always a dream of mine to be able to work with my sons when they were old enough.”

It all begs the question – what constitutes a crime at USA Swimming? The answer is this – the airing of any issue regarding sexual abuse by USA Swim coaches is the #1 sin at USA Swimming.

As I said, this stuff is stranger than fiction.

Note: All effort was made to contact, both via email and phone, all who are mentioned in this article. But, as has been the case all along, no one talked.