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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kentucky man charged in Pitino extortion case

Associated Press Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. A Louisville man has been charged as part of an alleged plot to extort University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, but won't face jail time after reaching a deal with prosecutors.

Federal prosecutors charged Lester Goetzinger in a bill of information filed late Wednesday with leaving three voicemail messages on Pitino's unlisted cell phone number between Feb. 26 and Feb. 28 at the behest of Karen Cunagin Sypher, 49.

Cunagin Sypher has pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to extort money from Pitino and lying to the FBI. Prosecutors allege that Cunagin Sypher tried to extort millions to pay her children's college tuition and to pay off her house.

Goetzinger's attorney, John M. Barry of Louisville, said his client will testify against Cunagin Sypher, a friend of more than a decade, when the case goes to trial.

"He's stupid," Barry said during a press conference without Goetzinger present. "What he did was stupid."

Cunagin Sypher's attorney, Thomas Clay of Louisville, said he expected Goetzinger to testify against his client in return for the deal.

"I understand he's been extensively debriefed by the FBI," Clay said. "But, I don't know what he's told the FBI."

Dawn Masden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville, declined to address the specifics of the charge against Goetzinger, saying the "document speaks for itself."

Under the terms of the pretrial diversion deal, the charges against Goetzinger will be dismissed in 12 months if he does not break the law during that time.

Barry said Cunagin Sypher went to Goetzinger's home on Feb. 25, 2009, and made allegations against Pitino that date back to 2003. Barry declined to give specifics of the allegations. After a "sexual tryst," Cunagin Sypher gave Pitino's unlisted cell phone number to Goetzinger and told him what she wanted said, Barry said.

"He acted on his emotions and he was duped. I think he thought he was doing it because he thought it was true," Barry said. "I think the sex gives it a little bump."

Goetzinger left three voicemail messages for Pitino, including one that contained a threat to "publicize claims concerning events alleged to have occurred in 2003." The document does not give details about the alleged events.

The document says Goetzinger made the calls from pay phones so they couldn't be traced.

Barry said Goetzinger realized Cunagin Sypher's allegations against Pitino weren't true after he met with the FBI. Since then, Goetzinger has cooperated with the FBI and federal prosecutors, Barry said.

"Things didn't add up once he heard the other side," Barry said.

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

Divorce papers for the team's equipment manager, Tim Sypher, who has not been charged, and Cunagin Sypher were recently filed. Tim Sypher served as Pitino's personal assistant with the Boston Celtics from 1997-2001, then followed Pitino to Louisville in 2001 to become the team's equipment manager.

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 to $10 million. Tim Sypher has not been charged in the case.

Authorities have not said what information Cunagin Sypher might have been trying to use to allegedly extort Pitino. They have said the coach believed it was related to an unspecified 2003 encounter with her.

Pitino has coached three different schools to the Final Four Louisville, Providence and Kentucky, where he won a national title. He also led the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks in the NBA.

Pitino signed a three-year contract extension with Louisville in May 2007 that could keep him at the school through 2013. The deal pays him $2.5 million a year if he stays until the end of the contract. He'll receive loyalty bonuses of $3.6 million in 2010 and 2013 if he remains with the school.