Pitino, defense attorney have testy courtroom exchange during questioning in extortion trial

By Dylan T. Lovan, AP
Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pitino, defense attorney have testy court exchange

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rick Pitino and the attorney for a woman accused of demanding millions from him to conceal a sexual tryst exchanged heated words before a jury Thursday, as the Louisville basketball coach tried to fend off accusations of rape and lying.

Attorney James Earhart was pushing Pitino to address allegations from defendant Karen Cunagin Sypher that she was raped. The coach interrupted, saying he was “here to give the truth.” Earhart replied, “I bet you are.”

“I don’t fear the truth,” Pitino said.

“Neither do we,” Earhart shot back.

Sypher, 50, has pleaded not guilty to extortion. She filed a rape report with police about six years after she and Pitino had sex at a table after hours in an Italian restaurant. Authorities have said her claims lacked merit, and no charges were ever filed.

Pitino told jurors on Wednesday that Sypher initiated the sex by whispering to him and unzipping his pants when he got up to leave the empty restaurant.

Pitino, a married father of five, acknowledged during Thursday’s questioning that he didn’t immediately report phone calls that threatened to expose the tryst and a demand for cash, cars and housing for Sypher because he didn’t want his family to find out about the affair.

Pitino said he didn’t immediately contact authorities because he wanted to “contain” potentially damaging information.

Pitino’s testimony ended after about two hours Thursday. His attorney, Steve Pence, said Pitino would return to recruiting later in the day.

“This matter, certainly his portion, is behind him now,” Pence said. “I’m very proud of coach Pitino in how he handled this.”

The coach’s testimony marked the first time he’s talked publicly in detail about his July 2003 encounter with Sypher, the meeting that led to her extortion trial. Pitino’s portrayal of Sypher as the aggressor came after several witnesses said she was flirty and persistent when she approached Pitino at the restaurant.

Pitino obliged her request to say happy birthday to her son on her cell phone. When she returned later, Pitino said, he bought the former model a drink. They lingered to talk after the restaurant had closed and the owner had gone home.

As he got up from the table, Pitino said Sypher whispered something.

“Some unfortunate things happened,” Pitino said. “She opened up my pants.”

“Did you have sex that night?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford asked.

“Yes, very briefly,” Pitino answered.

A few weeks later, Sypher, then known as Karen Wise, called and said she was pregnant.

“I didn’t believe at the time it was my child,” Pitino said. “She said she didn’t know what she was going to do.”

Sypher said she had no health insurance, Pitino said, so he offered $3,000. He thought the money was for counseling and medical needs but Sypher later said she had an abortion, Pitino said.

Less than a year later, Pitino’s assistant, Tim Sypher, married Karen Wise. Witnesses said the two appeared at Louisville functions with Pitino.

The threats to reveal the sexual fling came nearly six years later, Pitino said.

On Feb. 26, 2009, he listened to a cell phone message of a man’s voice describing details of the encounter at the restaurant and calling it a violent assault, Pitino told the jury.

“He mentioned the word rape. I got very sick to my stomach,” Pitino said. He has repeatedly denied the rape allegations.

Jurors earlier heard testimony from Lester Goetzinger of Louisville, who acknowledged making the calls in exchange for sexual favors from Sypher.

Pitino also testified he received a handwritten note from Sypher in March 2009 that asked for cars, housing and money. The note was delivered to Pitino by Tim Sypher, who was the team’s equipment manager at the time.

Pitino received a third threatening call two days later telling him the sexual relationship would be made public unless he did “the right thing.”

Pitino said in March 2009, he received a letter from attorney Dana Kolter of Louisville, who was representing Sypher. In the letter, which jurors saw Wednesday, Kolter accused Pitino of rape and forcing Sypher to have an abortion and demanded a monetary settlement to prevent a lawsuit from being filed.

Kolter is expected to testify later Thursday.

Pitino contacted the FBI a short time later, then released a public statement saying someone tried to extort money from him.

Pitino has coached at Louisville since 2001, after leaving the NBA’s Boston Celtics where Tim Sypher served as his special assistant. Tim Sypher continued to work for Pitino as Louisville’s men’s basketball equipment manager and has recently been named director of the Yum Center, the building that houses offices and training facilities for Louisville’s men’s basketball team.

Karen and Tim Sypher, who have a 5-year-old daughter, are in the midst of a divorce.

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