ESPN Accused of Defaming Syracuse Coach

     SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CN) – The wife of former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine claims in court that ESPN used a doctored phone call recording to build a sex abuse case against her husband.

     She says ESPN “spitefully destroyed (her) reputation in an attempt to capitalize financially in the tragic wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal.”
     Laurie Fine, the only plaintiff in the federal complaint, sued ESPN, a Disney subsidiary, and its reporters Mark Schwarz and Arthur Berko.
     She claims the defendants falsely accused her of, among other things: “creating a space in which children could be sexually molested in secret;
     “Witnessing her husband sexually molest children, but not doing anything to stop it;”
     “Knowingly permitting the sexual molestation of children in her home;
     “Telling Robert Davis that she knew her husband was sexually molesting him;
     “Having adulterous sex with Robert Davis while he was still in high school; … [and]
     “Having adulterous and dysfunctional sexual relationships with Syracuse basketball team players over the course of many years.”
     The 48-page complaint revolves around Davis, who was a Syracuse ball boy when the Fine family took him into their home and, Fine says, “treated – and held him accountable – as if her were their own teenage son.”
     She says that when Davis got into college, he “responded poorly to being financially cut off by the Fines.”
     The complaint continues: “Davis regularly tricked the Fines into giving him money.
     “On at least three occasions, Davis tricked Bernie into giving him money to pay off unpaid student loans. Bernie gave Davis at least $5,000 to pay off these loans.
     However, these loans did not exist.
     “Bernie refused to accept his failure to turn around Davis’ troubled youth.
     “Davis fabricated countless stories in order to gain the Fines’ sympathy and justify his requests for money.
     “One particular story set Laurie off.
     “One day, Davis called Laurie and told her that Bernie sexually abused him while living in the Fine’s home during the mid-1980’s.
     “Laurie ‘went off’ on Davis, because Davis finally crossed the line.
     “Bernie assured Laurie that it was just another one of Davis’ fabricated stories.
     “Although they agreed that Davis crossed the line in privately and falsely accusing Bernie of sexual abuse, the Fines were still in denial about their inability to better help Davis.
     “Therefore, the Fines agreed not to ‘go off’ on Davis in the future, because Davis was still just a young man in serious need of mental help and support.
     “Davis continued calling Laurie with various stories designed to win her family’s sympathy and justify his habitual requests for money.
     “When Davis was desperate, he would bring up his false accusations against Bernie.
     “However, in light of their agreement not to ‘go off’ on Davis, Laurie would patiently suffer Davis’ vilification of her husband with the hope that Davis would eventually outgrow the lies and his dependency upon her family for financial support.
     “Laurie occasionally tested Davis’ various stories by asking him specific questions – questions intended to see just how far Davis was willing to let his lies go.
     “Laurie often resorted to sarcasm during these conversations, as it was the only way she could get through Davis’ stories without ‘going off’ on him.
     “Eventually, Davis quit calling Laurie with his made-up stories.
     “The Fines thought Davis finally outgrew his dependency on them for money and the bitterness he felt when they withheld their financial support. They were wrong.
     “In 2002, Davis saw an ESPN report about coaches molesting young athletes. “In light of ESPN’s report, Davis believed the media would quickly pick up his story and that he could be payback against the Fines for their financial abandonment, and perhaps profit in some way from the media attention.”
     She claims Davis contacted two reported for The Post-Standard newspaper, of Syracuse, and told “the same fabricated story he had previously told Laurie, that Bernie Fine had molested him while he, Davis, was a child.”
     She says the Post-Standard “spent a year researching Davis’ story before determining they lacked any evidence to overcome their serious doubts as to the story’s truth.”
     So, Fine says, Davis took his story to ESPN and its defendant reporters Mark Schwarz and Arthur Berko.
     She claims Davis told them his story and, “also gave defendants an admittedly doctored, substantially inaudible, and entirely speculative tape, which Davis purported to be a recording of a phone conversation between he and Laurie in 2002.”
     After interviewing several people who Davis claimed could back up his story, “defendants decided not to run Davis’ story or publish the selective statements taken out of context from the admittedly doctored, substantially inaudible, and entirely speculative tape purporting to be of Laurie Fine in 2003, because they lacked evidence to overcome their serious doubts as to the story’s truth,” according to the complaint.
     But Fine claims Schwarz became obsessed with Davis’ story, and “went so far as to spy on plaintiff, shooting a hidden video camera of her without her knowledge.”
     She claims ESPN did not release the tape and tell Davis’ story until 8 years later, in 2011, shortly after the Penn State sex abuse scandal, which “involved accusations against a former assistant Pennsylvania State University football coach, Jerry Sandusky, who is alleged to have sexually abused several young boys while employed by the university.”
     After Davis found out about the Penn State scandal, he persuaded his stepbrother, Mike Lang, to corroborate his story and recant previous statements denying that Bernie Fine had molested him as a young boy, Fine says in the complaint: “Davis gave Lang defendant Schwarz’ cell phone number and instructed him to tell Schwarz that Bernie had molested him, Lang, just like Jerry Sandusky molested those kids at Penn State.
     “Lang called Schwarz on November 11, 2011, and recanted the claim he steadfastly maintained during the prior decade, that ‘[t]he things that happened to [Davis], didn’t happen to me,'” according to the complaint. (Brackets in complaint.)
     Then, Fine says, “Nearly a decade after first investigating Davis’ story, but only six days after receiving Lang’s phone call, defendants broke Davis’ story on November 17, 2011.
     “Defendants had serious doubts as to the truth of Davis’ story in 2011, just as they had in 2003, because the story still lacked a credible second source or any corroborating evidence.
     “Only two things changed between 2003, when defendants first investigated Davis’ story but refused to publish it, and November 17, 2011, when defendants published Davis’ accusations against Laurie and Bernie Fine.
     “1. In November 2011, the Penn State sex abuse scandal received worldwide coverage.
     “2. In the immediate wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, Mike Lang suddenly recanted decades-long testimony by telling Schwarz he was abused, just like the children at Penn State.
     “By 2011, Schwarz had lost his journalistic objectivity in Davis’ story, in part, by maintaining personal communication with Davis for almost a decade.”
     She claims that that “These personal communications caused Schwarz and Berko to push Davis’ story, despite having serious doubts as to its truth, because they had spitefully developed an irrational ill will toward the Fines since Davis first approached defendants in 2003.”
     She adds: “ESPN pushed the story, despite having serious doubts as to its truth, in order to capitalize financially in the wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal.
     “In doing so, defendants ignored Lang’s total lack of credibility, which should have precluded defendants from maliciously publishing the story.”
     Fine claims that Schwarz put Davis in touch with a third accuser of Bernie Fine, Zach Tomaselli, “so that Davis could coach Tomaselli on what to say to the Syracuse police.”
     Fine claims that Davis and Tomaselli eventually admitted that Tomaselli’s accusations were false, and coached, but “(d)espite knowing that Tomaselli was lying, defendants published Tomaselli’s allegations, without qualification, in order to bolster Davis’ accusations against the Fines and to further justify defendants’ 2011 publication of selective statements taken out of context from the admittedly doctored, substantially inaudible, and entirely speculative tape made by Davis in 2002.”
     Fine seeks compensatory and punitive damages for libel.
     She is represented by Lawrence Fisher with Cohen and Willwerth.

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