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Alleged Russian mobster charged with fixing Olympic events

Skating scandal gets worse

Posted: Thursday, August 01, 2002

NEW YORK -- A reputed Russian crime boss was arrested Wednesday on charges he fixed two figure skating events at the Salt Lake City Games by arranging a vote-swapping deal, yet another bizarre twist in a scandal that has tainted the sport.

Alimzan Tokhtakhounov, picked up in Italy on U.S. charges, is accused of scheming to get a French judge to vote for the Russian pairs team, which won the gold medal. In exchange, he arranged for the Russian judge to vote for the winning French ice dancing team, according to a criminal complaint filed in Manhattan federal court.

The judging controversy, the biggest in Olympic history, resulted in a duplicate set of gold medals being awarded to the Canadian pairs team.

Wiretaps used in a mob investigation captured a series of telephone calls between Tokhtakhounov in Italy and unnamed conspirators during the games that ''lay out a pattern of conduct that connects those two events,'' U.S. Attorney James Comey told a news conference.

The suspect ''arranged a classic quid pro quo: 'You'll line up support for the Russian pair, we'll line up support for the French pair and everybody will go away with the gold, and perhaps there'll be a little gold for me,''' Comey said.

Prosecutors said that Tokhtakhounov hoped he would be rewarded with a visa to return to France, where he once lived.

Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the gold medal by the slimmest of margins in pairs figure skating, defeating Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. But French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said the next day she'd been pressured to vote for the Russians, who slipped during their routine while the Canadians were virtually flawless.

Witnesses at an International Skating Union hearing during the games also testified that Le Gougne said she was pressured as part of a vote-swapping scheme involving the French and Russians in pairs and ice dancing.

Le Gougne later recanted but still was suspended, as was the head of the French skating federation, Didier Gailhaguet. Neither returned telephone messages seeking comment, but Le Gougne's Salt Lake City-based lawyer, Erik Christiansen, said she ''has no involvement and no knowledge of this person or these allegations.''

A week after the pairs competition, the ice dancing team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won France's first gold in figure skating since 1932 by a 5-4 split of the judges. Anissina was born in Russia. Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh of Russia took the silver, but the placement of the top two teams did not cause a stir at the time.

When asked about the charges, Peizerat told The Associated Press: ''I have never heard of this man.''

Tokhtakhounov was arrested at his resort in Forte dei Marmi in northern Italy. He was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit bribery relating to sporting contests. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

The criminal complaint identified Tokhtakhounov as a ''major figure in international Eurasian Organized Crime.''

According to the complaint, Tokhtakhounov ''has been involved in drug distribution, illegal arms sales and trafficking in stolen vehicles.'' A confidential source told the FBI that he also had fixed beauty pageants in Moscow in the early 1990s.

The complaint alleges he used his influence with members of the Russian and French skating federations ''in order to fix the outcome of the pairs and ice dancing competitions at the 2002 Olympics.''

The court papers also contend he worked with ''unnamed co-conspirators.''

Federal investigators said they obtained recorded telephone conversations between Tokhtakhounov and a French ice dancer, in which he brags about being able to influence the outcome of competitions, a senior law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The complaint made clear the case was based on confidential informants and wiretaps. At one point, it said wiretaps caught the defendant talking to a female ice dancer's mother, telling her, ''We are going to make your daughter an Olympic champion -- even if she falls, we will make sure she is number one.''

After the Olympics, the female ice dancer herself called Tokhtakhounov to discuss the outcome, the papers said. She told him she could have won without his help, saying, the Russians ''did not put us in first place,'' the papers said. While Anissina was the ice dancer who won the gold, the papers didn't identify her as the woman on the phone.

Skating officials were stunned by the allegations.

Lloyd Ward, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the organization was ''deeply concerned.''

''American athletes and the competitors from all nations must be assured that they compete on a level playing field,'' he said.

Giselle Davies, spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said: ''This kind of alleged activity has no place in the Olympic movement.''

Pam Coburn, head of Skate Canada, added, ''The severity of these allegations is shocking.''

Like the pairs competition, ice dancing was a point of controversy at the games.

Lithuanians Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, who finished fifth, filed a protest questioning the voting that placed the couple lower than the Italian and Canadian couples who fell during the free dance, the final phase of the competition. The ISU rejected the protest, saying it believed the judging was fair.

The Lithuanians said they didn't expect to win their appeal but came forward to generate publicity and expose judging inconsistencies.

''We wouldn't have done it unless there was such a stark realization that something was wrong, especially with the two skaters falling,'' said John Domanskis, spokesman for the Lithuanian Olympic team. ''That certainly made it easier for our skaters to say, 'Yes, there is a problem, and it should be corrected.'''

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Associated Press Writer Christopher Newton in Washington contributed to this story.



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