Appearances Aside, Lingering Sex Abuse Controversy at the Heart of USA Water Polo

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Photo Courtesy: NCAA

Beginning in October of last year, USA Water Polo unleashed a shrewd social media campaign. #WaterPoloTough highlighted exceptional athletes as they displayed remarkable ability and resilience.

usawpSkillfully produced by the prominent British advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, the series of vignettes—created to be shown prior to the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics—is entirely disconnected from allegations of mismanagement currently plaguing the U.S. national governing body for polo.

As a result of a sexual abuse scandal involving a prominent former age group coach, a coalition of long-time polo advocates is working furiously to oust senior leadership at USA Water Polo. Leaving the national governing body like the athletes in those captivating videos: treading water in tough times.

[USA Water Polo Leadership Accountability; Call for CEO and Board Chairman Removal]

The sexual abuse scandal has ensnared USA Water Polo Chief Executive Officer Christopher Ramsey and Christy Sicard, USAWP’s Senior Director, Membership and SafeSport Compliance. Both have been named as defendants in a civil suit alongside Bahram Hojreh, a one-time USAWP SOPAC Zone board member and long-time polo coach in SoCal.

Some believe there were potentially criminal lapses in responsibility and judgment by Ramsey and Sicard, who reportedly did not notify local law enforcement quickly enough to suit the complainants, following multiple reports of abuse perpetrated by members of Hojreh’s International Water Polo 16U girls’ team against two opponents in 2017.

#WaterPoloTough

A still from the #WaterPoloTough social media campaign. Photo Courtesy: POBY and USAWP

The suit, filed a year ago in California Superior Court by the law firm Manly, Stewart & Finaldi on behalf of former players of Hojreh’s International Water Polo Club, has caused a legal and public relations embarrassment, tarnishing Ramsey’s credibility after 14 years leading USAWP through a period of sustained growth. That tenure as CEO—including an announcement last year of an agreement with the City of Irvine on a $250 million-dollar training center and aquatics venue—may be irreparably harmed by concerns about how the CEO and his board handled sexual abuse allegations against Hojreh.

[Future Is Now for US Olympic Water Polo Program; Irvine Approves New Aquatics Center]

Ramsey denies there was any delay in reporting Hojreh to the proper authorities.

“Following initial reports regarding the alleged conduct of International Water Polo Club athletes, USA Water Polo ensured that reports were made to local law enforcement and the US Center for SafeSport, which, within the Olympic movement, has exclusive jurisdiction to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct,” Ramsey was quoted in an October 2020 statement, following the naming of him, Sicard, and USAWP in the civil suit.

Allegations of past abuse come back to haunt Ramsey and his organization

The allegations concern Hojreh, who for two decades was an age group and high school boys and girls coach in California’s Orange County. His coaching career has been pock-marked by incidents. Fired twice by the Irvine Unified School District for allegations of abusive behavior, by July 2017 Hojreh was leading the 16U boys’ and girls’ teams for International Water Polo Club, based at the Joint Forces Training Base facility in Los Alamitos.

Bahram Hojreh coaches kids at his water polo club in 2013. (Photo by ROSE PALMISANO, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/SCNG)

Bahram Hojreh. Photo Courtesy: Rose Palmisano

In a girls’ 16U match during Junior Olympics play that summer, International was matched up against the Alliance Water Polo Club of Los Alamitos in a back-and-forth contest until the third period, when Alliance began to pull away. Suddenly, an Alliance player yelled of her opponent: “she grabbed my vagina!” The referee responded by excluding the outraged complainant from the match. Astonished, she stormed off the pool deck.

A heated discussion on the pool deck ensued between parents, referees, Hojreh and Christopher Smithson, head coach for Alliance. The allegation—that an International player intentionally penetrated the Alliance player during contact in the water—set in motion a series of complaints, reports and a subsequent lawsuit that have struck at the heart of an NGB looking for a restart during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 440,000 Americans and forced the suspension of athletic competition throughout much of the country.

[SPECIAL REPORT: When Water Polo Play Becomes Sexual Abuse]

Ramsey cited in a deposition last year that Sicard properly forwarded all reports to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which has been the  clearing house for alegations of athlete abuse at all U.S. NGOs since March 2017. According to Morgan Stewart, a partner at Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, Ramsey declined to immediately notify local police about the allegations, a potential violation of the mandated reporter law in place in California since 1980.

In an SW interview last month, Ramsey presented his timeline of USAWP’s actions regarding Hojreh’s alleged abuses.

“I don’t want to get into the details of that other than to say we had no allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct from Bahram Hojreh prior to the US Center for SafeSport in January 2018 informing that he was a defendant,” he said. “Two months later, the Los Alamitos Police Department arrested him. Up to that, there were no allegations.”

[On The Record with USA Water Polo’s Chris Ramsey: Present, Past, Future]

It was USAWP’s decision to forgo contacting Orange County law enforcement in July 2017 that convinced Stewart’s firm to include USAWP in its civil suit against Hojreh.

This is not the first time the USAWP and its chief executive stand accused of ignoring alleged incidents of abuse. A story last December in the Orange County Register alleges that Ramsey and his organization did not effectively respond to reports of repeated sexual harassment by Perry Korbakis against a female referee.

In an interview last December, Stewart maintained that Ramsey’s and Secord’s depositions not only confirmed that they failed to respond properly in 2017 to allegations against Hojreh, but that their admissions altered his firm’s strategy.

“Our cases have been around for almost two years now, and it wasn’t until Chris Ramsey and Christy Sicard testified within the last 60 days that we named them [as defendants],” he said in a telephone conversation. “It became so clear and so apparent that their failures were at the heart of not stopping Hojreh from abusing kids.”

This is an explosive allegation, one consistent with the aggressive approach of Stewart’s Irvine, California-based firm who bill themselves as “AMERICA’S LEADING SEXUAL ABUSE LAW FIRM”.

Cover-up involving a new USAWP facility in Irvine?

In the same interview Stewart leveled another accusation: that the effort to cover up the Hojreh allegations by not alerting local authorities was due to USAWP’s drive to build a new training and competition venue in partnership with the City of Irvine in time for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

That partnership represents the crowning achievement of Ramsey’s career. USA Water Polo has been determined to finalize a deal for the new aquatics center, and, according to former USAWP board chair Richard Foster (1990-1996, and 2000-2006) a new pool in Irvine has been Ramsey’s desire since he was hired to lead the organization more than a decade ago.

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Richard Foster, IHSOF, USAWP Hall of Fame member

Stewart speculated that negotiations with the City of Irvine were so vital to the organization’s future—and Ramsey’s legacy—that mention of an abuse investigation against a USAWP zone board member would impact the pending agreement. He said that USAWP declined to detail how the organization handles incidents of sexual abuse—an important consideration, Stewart believes. As partners in a facility that will require these sorts of protections, it’s reasonable to expect this would be a point of discussion.

“However—and we’ve got this through public access records request via Irvine—they’ve been in communication for months, if not a year, with the city manager, the city council,” Stewart said. “During that time, they’re telling the city what a great organization [they are], how they’re going to develop this. Not once do they mention in any document Hojreh.”

Is USA Water Polo underinsured?

Liability is another open question for Ramsey and his board. Stewart, lead attorney on a number of sexual abuse cases, was dismissive of the insurance coverage that USAWP carries to satisfy claims like those filed by his firm. He claims that USAWP, currently with 38,000 members, is “drastically underinsured.” The $2–3 million in USA Water Polo’s coverage is dwarfed by that of school districts of similar size—coverage that might provide as much as $25 million in the event of a judgment in an abuse lawsuit.

Stewart alleges that the determination to carry so little insurance was deliberate.

“In my view, and my argument would be—obviously I’d have to prove this—USA Water Polo’s a non-profit, they figure they don’t have sufficient assets to go after.”

Christian Deputy, Chief Sales Officer for The Buckner Company, USAWP’s new insurance broker, clarified how much insurance is necessary to provide SAM (Sexual Abuse and Molestation) coverage necessary in today’s youth athletics market.

“In addition to their own histories and the size of the organization, [it’s determined by] the amount of assets that they have, the amount of budget they have available,” he said in a recent telephone discussion. “All of those variables come into a discussion and analysis of what’s appropriate for that organization. What do they need to protect, how many people are involved in the organization?”

Deputy added that the amount and cost of coverage required is determined by the marketplace, so suggesting that USAWP is underinsured is speculative at best.

“SAM is [provided by] a very narrow niche of insurance companies willing to take on that risk,” he said.

Who’s telling the truth?

A critical point of the civil suit is that, due to Ramsey and Sicard’s decision to not contact law enforcement immediately, they were in violation of the SafeSport mandates, and may have been under investigation by the organization.

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Chris Ramsey left and Dan Klatt. Photo Courtesy: Jun Tolibao/USAWP

Ramsey has denied these allegations, saying he complied with the SafeSport reporting requirements. In prosecuting the civil suit, Stewart makes the claim that not only did the USAWP CEO fail in his responsibility to protect his members, he subsequently lied about this to City authorities in Irvine and to Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) who chaired a bipartisan inquiry into abuse of American athletes.

“The problem isn’t that they just do that with the City of Irvine; they did it to the United States Senate,” Stewart said. In February 2018, Ramsey claimed to “report everything” to Senators Blumenthal and Moran. Yet it had been six months since Hojreh was reported to SafeSport, and he was not mentioned.

“Ramsey writes in February 2018 to Blumenthal and Moran: ‘Senators, we report everything.’ Except for that thing you didn’t report six months ago!”, Stewart scoffed. “You’re making representations to the City of Irvine and the U.S. Senate and you’re not mentioning the huge fact of … an abuser in our ranks…. [Hojreh] was on our regional board, and we’re not going to say a word about it?”

A voice from the past weighs in

Foster, the former board president, has been highly critical of Michael Graff, his successor, and the pick of Ramsey to lead the organization. During the tenure of Foster and Bruce Wigo, his executive director, USAWP also dealt with a serious allegation of sexual abuse against Randy Dimacali in 2003 that came toward the end of Wigo’s term.

Citing the procedures of USA Swimming, which at that time had its own cases of abuse to contend with, Foster said he and Wigo took the position of complete transparency. If there was an allegation of abuse by a coach, they would immediately suspend that person.

“We’re going to shed as much light as we can to make it public, and we want our coaches to know that we’re not going to tolerate this,” he said.

Fourteen years later, Foster, sued by former USA Swimming National Team member Dagny Knutson for breach of fiduciary duty and fraud, remains defiant about his decision in this instance. “We said: ‘We don’t care. If they want to sue us for not following those rules, we don’t care,’” declared Foster. “We’re going to be as supportive to the players as we can.”

He then put the onus on the USAWP board to make the changes necessary to correct the situation.

“It’s beyond me to believe that the board didn’t know about this. And if they didn’t, it’s total malfeasance of the organization,”

[A Moment of Truth at the USAWP General Assembly?]

Given that obligation, Foster compared USA Water Polo’s current situation to the sex abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar, where Steve Penny, USAG’s Executive Director, was fired, and the entire board resigned. He advised that something be done, and quickly at that.

“Water polo needs to come up with some sort of swift, bold reaction to this to let parents know that their daughter is not going to be subject to this anymore,” he said.

In fact, Ramsey has been vocal in his criticism of Hojreh and the serious allegations against the former coach.

“I’m a parent, my kids played water polo, I was a volunteer coach,” he said. “When I learned about these allegations they turned my stomach.”

Claiming that USAWP took “immediate action” in 2018 upon hearing about the severity of the charges by suspending Hojreh’s membership, Ramsey turned the issue back on his membership.

“Everybody has to be vigilant—the way our system works, everybody’s a reporter. All members of USA Water Polo sign codes of conduct—and part of that is an obligation to identify aberrant behavior.”

With Chip Brenner and Genevieve Randazzo

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Barbara Gould

    Two suggestions:
    1. If reports went to 2 different oversight bodies the process of ‘burying reports will be significantly decreased.

    2. Why do we continue to have men coaching women’s sports without female coaches around? Or why do we have men coaching women’s sports at all. Hard to believe there aren’t enough highly qualified women to do the job.