Lawyer: Pitino meant to cover insurance

Updated: August 12, 2009, 8:09 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The woman accused of trying to extort Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino approached him in a restaurant six years ago, and the two had sex at a table after closing time, the coach told police.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeRick Pitino reportedly revealed details of his relationship with a woman who has been charged with extorting him.

Two weeks later, the married father of five gave Karen Cunagin Sypher $3,000 after she said she needed an abortion and didn't have health insurance, according to a summary of Pitino's July 12 statement to police. The coach's attorney, Steve Pence, said Wednesday that the money was to help her get medical coverage, not specifically to pay for an abortion.

"The way this has been reported in the media is not accurate," Pence told The Associated Press. "The coach has not done anything illegal."

The University of Louisville issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying that Pitino would read a statement to the media at 6:30 p.m. ET. The school said he would not take questions.

Louisville Metro Police PIO Dwight Mitchell told ESPN's Kelly Naqi earlier Wednesday that the sergeant who questioned Pitino understood that Pitino was talking about health insurance and not an abortion. After that was established, Sgt. Abbott left that line of questioning because it had nothing to do with the criminal charge of rape.

"It was Sgt. [Andy] Abbott's understanding that the money [Pitino gave Sypher] was for health insurance."

Cunagin Sypher, 49, was later charged with lying to the FBI and trying to extort $10 million from Pitino. She has pleaded not guilty.

Pitino told police he had been drinking at upscale restaurant Porcini and had consensual sex with Cunagin Sypher in August 2003 at a table near the bar. The police report said the 56-year-old coach denied Cunagin Sypher's allegations that he raped her after the restaurant closed and at another time somewhere else.

University of Louisville president James Ramsey expressed surprise at the new details in the scandal surrounding the coach, a staunch Roman Catholic whose contract includes dishonesty and "moral depravity" as grounds for firing.

"Several months ago, Coach Pitino informed me about the alleged extortion attempt. I've now been informed that there may be other details which, if true, I find surprising," Ramsey said in a statement, adding that his thoughts were with the Pitino family.

Pence told ESPN.com's Andy Katz on Tuesday that there is no reason for the revelations to compel Pitino to take a leave of absence. Pence said the coach is being "victimized" by Cunagin Sypher.

"He doesn't deserve to be punished for something he hasn't done," Pence said. "I can see no reason why he would take a leave of absence when he was being extorted. He has done nothing illegal."

The coach met Cunagin Sypher -- then named Karen Cunagin -- when she approached him in the restaurant and asked him to call her sons with words of encouragement, and the coach obliged, he said. Later that night, the restaurant cleared out, and the owner left the coach his keys. That's when they had sex.

She claimed Pitino forced himself on her, while the coach said she came onto him.

The two apparently weren't alone, though: The police documents, first reported by The Courier-Journal of Louisville, say a Pitino assistant was there during the encounter and heard what sounded like consensual sex.

Cunagin Sypher reported the rape allegations to police last month, but a Kentucky prosecutor said he lacked evidence to prosecute.

Cunagin Sypher's attorney, James Earhart, said Wednesday morning that he hadn't yet talked to his client about the release of the police documents.

Pitino told police that about two weeks after he met Cunagin Sypher, she called to say she was pregnant and that he had to be the father. Pitino told her when they met again that he didn't know what he wanted to do, according to the report by Sgt. Andy Abbott, commander of the sex-offense unit.

According to the reports, Pitino suggested the two meet at the condo of the team's equipment manager, Tim Sypher. She alleges the second assault took place at the condo. Karen Cunagin, as she was then known, later married Tim Sypher, whom she first met that day.

Pitino said Cunagin Sypher told him she was going to have an abortion but didn't have health insurance, so he gave her $3,000, according to the report. She told police the procedure was done in Cincinnati.

Pence said the story is about Cunagin Sypher and not his client.

"Karen Sypher is indicted for extortion," Pence told The Associated Press. "The commonwealth's attorney has said she is void of any credibility."

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said in a statement that "Coach Pitino has been truthful with us about this matter all along and we stand by him and his family during this process." On Wednesday, Jurich told ESPN.com he is "1 million percent behind Coach Pitino." Jurich said he would make a more formal statement later Wednesday.

If Pitino wasn't forthcoming with his employer, the consequences could be more severe than negative headlines.

His contract, which runs through 2013, lists as possible causes for termination: "Employee's dishonesty with Employer or University; or acts of moral depravity," as well as "disparaging media publicity of a material nature that damages the good name and reputation of Employer or University."

Pitino is a dedicated Roman Catholic who has brought a priest who's a close friend and spiritual adviser on team trips.

Abbott asked Cunagin Sypher during one interview why she waited until after she was indicted to report the rape allegations.

She gave varying answers, according to transcripts, saying she wanted to forget about it, that Pitino threatened her and finally that "they kept throwing crumbs to keep me happy."

Abbott asked Cunagin Sypher why she was coming forward only after she was charged.

"Because ... where we are, it seems like retaliation," Abbott said.

"I know it does," Sypher responded.

Abbott's report said Vinnie Tatum, a former executive assistant to Pitino who said he was the coach's designated driver that night, told the FBI he was in the restaurant during the first encounter but he didn't see anything. He said he heard "only the sounds of two people that seemed to be enjoying themselves during a sexual encounter."

Abbott said records indicate that Pitino was in California when Sypher claimed she was sexually assaulted the second time.

A message Wednesday for Tatum at his office in the university's basketball practice facility was not immediately returned.

The case became public in April when Pitino announced that someone had tried to extort him. Pitino said he reported it to the FBI, and Sypher surrendered to authorities a few days later when she was named in a criminal complaint.

University sports information director Kenny Klein directed all inquires to Pence. Pitino finished his eighth season with the Cardinals, leading them to a 31-6 record and the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. The Cardinals lost to Michigan State in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.

Tim Sypher was Pitino's personal assistant with the Boston Celtics from 1997 to 2001, then followed the coach to Louisville in 2001. He and Karen Cunagin Sypher are currently going through a divorce.

A message for Tim Sypher was left Wednesday at the office of his divorce attorney.

The criminal complaint said Tim Sypher brought Pitino a written list of demands from his wife, including college tuition for her children, two cars, money to pay off her house and $3,000 per month. The demands later escalated, the complaint said. Tim Sypher has not been charged.

Besides Louisville and the Celtics, Pitino coached the New York Knicks from 1987 to 1989 and the University of Kentucky from 1989 to 1997.

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz was used in this report.

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