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Wife of former Syracuse coach plans to sue ESPN for libel

ESPN Suit

From Lateef Mungin, CNN

(CNN) – Laurie Fine, the wife of a former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach accused of molesting ball boys, plans to sue ESPN and two of the network’s reporters for libel in a federal court, her lawyers said Wednesday.

A draft of the lawsuit says sports journalists Mark Schwarz and Arthur Berko “spitefully destroyed Laurie Fine’s reputation in an attempt to capitalize financially in the tragic wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal.”

It says Fine’s reputation was ruined by the malicious publication of false and defamatory accusations.

In response, ESPN backed its stories. “The suit is without merit and we stand by our reporting,” the sports programming network said.

Fine broke her months-long silence Wednesday to talk about the accusations against her.

“I’m here today as a wife and a mother who has had to endure the trauma of being smeared in the public as a monster,” she said at a news conference. “My life has been destroyed by the defamation I have suffered, and this will last a lifetime.”

Fine called the lawsuit the first step to restore her reputation.

“I have never engaged in or condone despicable conduct falsely reported by ESPN,” she said. “They have maliciously attacked me in order to attack my husband.”

The ESPN reporting has forced her to live in seclusion and impaired her ability to volunteer in the community, she said.

“They should apologize and retract these horrible lies,” she said.

Among the false accusations Fine alleges in the lawsuit are:

• 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.

Her husband, Bernie Fine, was fired from Syracuse in November after several ball boys came forward and said the basketball coach molested them.

Bernie Fine has not been charged with a crime. He has maintained his innocence, saying shortly after the allegations surfaced that they were “patently false in every aspect.”

Bobby Davis and his stepbrother, Mike Lang, who are former Syracuse ball boys, were the first to step forward publicly last year with allegations against Fine.

Another man, Zachary Tomaselli, made similar accusations later, filed a lawsuit and then admitted that he made up the story.

A prison inmate, Floyd “David” VanHooser, also made the same allegations, only to recant them.

The draft lawsuit details the Fines’ relationship with Davis.

“The Fines mentored Davis when he got in trouble,” it says. “Rather than humiliating him in front of Laurie or their other children, Bernie often came home from work, and sternly spoke to him, in private, as if he were his own teenage son.

“Davis was family, and when he messed up, the Fines made sure he learned from his poor decisions, even if that required occasional parental corporal punishment and reprimanding.”

It says that the Fines gave Davis money but that he took advantage of their generosity by making up “countless stories” to “gain the Fines’ sympathy and justify his requests for money.”

When Davis told Laurie Fine that her husband had sexually molested him, the draft says, “Laurie ‘went off’ on Davis because Davis finally crossed the line.”

“Bernie assured Laurie that it was just another one of Davis’ fabricated stories,” the draft says. “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 Fine made headlines last year when ESPN and the Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse released details of a 10-year-old taped conversation with Davis that appeared to show she knew about her husband’s alleged sexual abuse.

In the tape, the woman that ESPN, citing experts, identified as Laurie Fine said she knew “everything that went on” with her husband, adding that “he thinks he’s above the law.”

“Bernie has issues … and you trusted somebody you shouldn’t,” the woman said, speaking to Davis.

The woman appears to acknowledge an inappropriate sexual relationship between Davis and Bernie Fine, saying, “It’s just wrong, and you were a kid.”

She also said that her husband should “find (himself) a gay boy, get your rocks off.”

The lawsuit refers to that recording as “an admittedly doctored, substantially inaudible, and entirely speculative tape, which Davis purported to be a recoding of a telephone conversation between he and Laurie in 2002.”

ESPN changed the audio quality, produced only portions of the tape and presented it out of context “such that the tape seriously misleads and misrepresents the conversation that occurred,” said Lawrence Fisher, Laurie Fine’s attorney.

Laurie Fine’s nephew, Matt Govendo, said at the time that the voice on the tape was his aunt’s but that the tape was “all tampered with.”

Last week, a New York State Supreme Court justice dismissed a defamation lawsuit against Syracuse University longtime head basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

The suit was filed in December by Davis and Lang. Boeheim initially supported Fine, a longtime friend and colleague, accusing Lang and Davis of fabricating their accusations of Fine’s alleged misconduct.

The coach later apologized for his comments.

Justice Brian DeJoseph of the Onondaga County Supreme Court ruled that the initial statements made to media outlets by Boeheim “were likely to be an opinion — a biased, passionate, and defensive point of view of a basketball coach — rather than objective fact. Thus, plaintiff’s defamation claim against Boeheim fails as a matter of law.”

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