Prosecutors say woman charged with Pitino extortion attempt made similar allegations in 1999

By Brett Barrouquere, AP
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Prosecutors: Woman in Pitino case had pattern

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that a Louisville woman charged with trying to extort money from University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino had made earlier, false claims of sexual harassment against a businessman.

Prosecutors said in a court document that Sypher filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against an auto glass business owner in 2001, a case prosecutors say had similarities to the Pitino case.

In the earlier case, prosecutors say, Sypher had consensual sex with the man, then was hired by him. She claimed to be pregnant when he ended the relationship and sued the man after she was fired a few months later, claiming sexual harassment.

Prosecutors alleged that the accusation was false. They made the argument in a trial brief filed in U.S. District Court in Louisville in advance of Sypher’s trial on charges she attempted to extort $10 million from Pitino, then lied to the FBI about it and falsely accused Pitino of rape in retaliation for his reporting the extortion attempt.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Kuhn Jr. said in the brief the earlier alleged extortion attempt, which did not result in criminal charges, will be introduced at Sypher’s trial, which starts July 26. Sypher has pleaded not guilty. She is accused of demanding college tuition for her children, her house to be paid off and $10 million.

Sypher’s attorney, James Earhart, was out of the office Wednesday morning and unavailable for comment. He had not filed a trial brief as of early Wednesday afternoon.

Under certain circumstances, prosecutors can introduce evidence of other acts that wouldn’t normally be allowed in a criminal trial. Generally, those prior acts are admissible as a means to show motive, opportunity, intent or planning.

In comparing the civil suit and the Pitino case, Kuhn wrote, the “similarities are striking, and evince a common motive, scheme, pattern, intent and plan.”

Sypher is accused of having a consensual sexual encounter with Pitino in 2003 at a Louisville restaurant, something the coach has admitted to. About three weeks later, prosecutors say, Sypher approached Pitino saying she was pregnant. That pregnancy was ended by an abortion, prosecutors said.

Six years later, prosecutors say, Sypher sought money from Pitino, threatened to accuse him of rape if he didn’t pay up and hired an attorney to pursue the claim.

“If all is accepted, I will protect Rick Pitino’s name for life,” prosecutors quote Sypher as saying.

Pitino reported the alleged extortion attempt to the FBI in the spring of 2009, resulting in Sypher’s arrest in April. Sypher went to Louisville Metro Police in June and accused Pitino of rape. Police declined to pursue the case and state prosecutors dismissed the allegation as lacking evidence.

Sypher filed a civil case in 2001 against Auto Glass and More, Inc., and the company owner Leonard LeGrande, who has since died. Sypher worked for Auto Glass and More as a sales representative for more than six months in 2000 and 2001.

LeGrande and one of his employees said she was fired for low sales. The suit was settled in 2002. No terms were released.

Sypher, then known as Karen Wise, accused LeGrande of making multiple inappropriate sexual advances in a suit filed after she was fired.

In depositions taken in 2002, LeGrande said he and Sypher had consensual sex on an overnight trip to Atlanta not long after they met, then again at the business just before she was hired. LeGrande said he broke off the relationship after his fiancee found out about it.

LeGrande recounted how he and Sypher met in a viaduct near the business around Christmas 2000 when Sypher said she was pregnant.

“You didn’t ask whether it was your baby?” Sypher’s attorney, Mikell Grafton Skinner, asked.

“No. Because she is dating another guy and she was married; and she was trying to insinuate it was my baby,” LeGrande said in his deposition.

LeGrande said Sypher never specifically said the baby was his. LeGrande said Sypher later told him she ended the pregnancy. LeGrande said Sypher called him repeatedly for nearly two months. Another employee, Greg Rose, said in a deposition that LeGrande ended the relationship with Sypher after she was hired and did not harass her.

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