2 men sue Syracuse, Boeheim for defamation

December 14, 2011 - 4:25 AM
Syracuse Fine Investigation Basketball

Former Syracuse ball boys Bobby Davis, left, and Mike Lang, right, flank attorney Gloria Allred during a news conference, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, in New York. The men say they were molested by former assistant Syracuse basketball coach Bernie Fine and have sued the school and men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim for defamation. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK (AP) — Jim Boeheim initially insisted two former Syracuse ball boys were lying when they accused his longtime assistant of molesting them.

Now they're suing the Orange men's basketball coach and the university for defamation, saying he was the one making false statements.

Stepbrothers Bobby Davis and Mike Lang have alleged they were molested by Bernie Fine, who has since been fired and has denied the allegations. A third man also has accused the 65-year-old Fine, who had been Boeheim's top assistant since 1976.

Boeheim "has seriously hurt my reputation but I want people to know the truth," Davis said, reading from a statement at a news conference after the lawsuit was filed in New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday.

When the allegations surfaced Nov. 17, Boeheim staunchly supported Fine, saying the accusations were lies to capitalize on the Penn State child sex abuse case.

"The Penn State thing came out, and the kid behind this is trying to get money," Boeheim told the Syracuse Post-Standard. "If he gets this, he's going to sue the university and Bernie. What do you think is going to happen at Penn State? You know how much money is going to be involved in civil suits? I'd say about $50 million. That's what this is about. Money."

And in an interview with ESPN, which broke the story, Boeheim said: "It is a bunch of a thousand lies that (Davis) has told. You don't think it is a little funny that his cousin is coming forward?"

Lang said that when Boeheim suggested "my little brother and I were lying," he "felt sick to my stomach."

University spokesman Kevin Quinn declined to comment. The U.S. attorney's office is investigating for potential criminal charges.

"Boeheim's statements were even worse given his 35 years of opportunity to observe Fine at close quarters, and at least seven years of opportunity to see Fine with Bobby Davis on trips, at practices, in Manley Field House and at games," the suit says.

Victim advocates reacted angrily to Boeheim's initial comments and called for him to resign or be fired. He later said he was wrong to question the motives of the accusers.

That's not enough, said the two men's attorney, Gloria Allred, whose recent clients include a woman who accused presidential candidate Herman Cain of making unwelcome sexual advances.

"Although Boeheim eventually acknowledged that he 'misspoke,' those words came too little too late," Allred said. "One of Syracuse's most respected individuals had already told the world repeatedly that Bobby Davis and Mike Lang were nothing but liars and out for money and nothing else.

"Boeheim has not suffered any consequences in his employment for using his position of power within the university to make these false, inflammatory and injurious statements about Bobby and Mike."

On Nov. 27, Zach Tomaselli, of Lewiston, Maine, also accused Fine, and ESPN aired a tape in which a woman the network identified as Fine's wife tells Davis she knew "everything" that was going on. After Fine was fired that night, Boeheim released a statement saying he regretted any statements he made that "might have been insensitive to victims of abuse."

On Nov. 29, Boeheim apologized, but said again he didn't regret defending his old friend based on the information he had at the time, adding that he never worried about his job status in 36 years.

By Dec. 2, he was far more contrite.

"I believe I misspoke very badly in my response to the allegations that have been made," said Boeheim, who spoke slowly and paused frequently during a postgame news conference. "I shouldn't have questioned what the accusers expressed or their motives. I am really sorry that I did that, and I regret any harm that I caused."

Davis, now 39, said in the lawsuit that Fine started molesting him when he was about 11 years old and that the sexual contact continued for almost two decades. A ball boy for six years, Davis said the abuse occurred at Fine's home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.

Lang, 45, has told ESPN that Fine began molesting him while he was in fifth or sixth grade.

During an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan on Tuesday night, Lang was asked whether Boeheim should lose his job.

"That's not for me to say," he said. "I certainly hope not, but he did a lot of damage by calling us liars without knowing the facts."

The suit said Boeheim's office was always near Fine's — and next door at times — and that Fine's door was generally open, except when Davis was inside with the assistant coach. The lawsuit contradicts Boeheim's assertion to the Post-Standard that Davis went on road trips only if he was baby-sitting Fine's kids; the suit said he traveled with the team before Fine had children and at times when the assistant didn't bring along his family.

The suit includes Davis' assertion that Boeheim saw Davis lying on the bed in Fine's hotel room in his shorts during the 1987 Final Four. In a Nov. 17 telephone interview with The Associated Press, Boeheim denied ever going to the assistant's room, much less seeing Davis there.

"This kid came forward, and there was no one to corroborate his story. Not one. Not one," Boeheim told the AP. "... They said I walked into Bernie's room on the road and saw this. I have never walked into Bernie's room on the road. This isn't true. This just isn't true."

The suit said Boeheim "made each of these statements knowing they were false or recklessly disregarding their truth or falsity."

The suit requests special, compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined at trial. Allred said the university was included because she believed it was legally liable for Boeheim's statements as an employee who often spoke to the media on Syracuse's behalf.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said last week that Davis was credible, but he couldn't investigate under state law because the statute of limitations had expired.

The statute of limitations in New York to bring a civil suit for child sexual abuse is five years after the victim turns 18, though there have been several legislative attempts recently to open a one-year window for older incidents.

Allred said she would work with state lawmakers to change the rules.

"That's not the reason we are filing," she said of the lack of options for Davis and Lang to pursue the charges. "The reason we are filing is we have reason to believe our clients were defamed."

Under New York case law, defamation is "making a false statement which tends to expose a person to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace." Accusing someone of a crime they didn't commit is by nature defamatory, which in this case could mean accusing the two men of lying to authorities.

Albany lawyer Kevin Luibrand, who has two pending defamation cases, said it always comes down to the exact words someone used. Luibrand, who was unfamiliar with Boeheim's precise quotes, said the coach could argue that he made the statements based on what he thought was true.

However, acknowledging later he was — or may have been — wrong, as Boeheim did, doesn't undo the initial false statement.

"The truth is always a defense," Luibrand said. "The statements don't necessarily have to be truthful but based on a belief they are truthful."

Davis said he was suing so victims of abuse would not be afraid to come forward.

"We're grateful any time a child sex abuse victim finds the courage to take action against a child predator," David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. "That's an enormous benefit of civil litigation — it can help uncover evidence of complicity by a predator's colleagues and supervisors, and thus deter others from keeping secret about possible child sex crimes in the future."

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Associated Press Writer Michael Virtanen in Albany and AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse contributed to this report.