Signaling an all-out battle to retain her place on the U.S. figure skating team, Tonya Harding filed suit late Wednesday to block the U.S. Olympic Committee’s impending hearing on her eligibility. Her suit also demanded $20 million in damages.
The 16-page lawsuit asked for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to stop the USOC’s scheduled hearing Tuesday in Oslo. This hearing was likely to be Harding’s last hurdle in her quest to represent the United States at the Winter Games along with rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.
Harding’s suit was filed by her defense team in the Portland suburb of Oregon City, at the Clackamas County Court.
Attorney Robert Weaver said the out-of-the-way court was chosen because Clackamas County was Harding’s last permanent residence. He said he expected a hearing today.
“She will take the ice and make everyone proud,” Weaver said.
One Oregon legal scholar, who asked not to be named, suggested there may be another reason in choosing that location: The possibility of finding a more sympathetic judge in the community where Harding has trained and had become a local celebrity long before her ex-husband arranged the Jan. 6 attack on Kerrigan.
On the other hand, legal experts have been saying for days that the hearing in Oslo opens the USOC to charges that it is rushing too fast to guarantee Harding due process.
Asked by the Associated Press if the lawsuit meant Harding would not appear before the hearing of the USOC’s Games Administration Board in the event it proceeds, Weaver said: “We’re going to exhaust this first and see where it goes.”
The foundation of her lawsuit is Harding’s insistence that she has complied with all rules and regulations of the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.
The suit said the hearing does not provide adequate due process because Harding wasn’t given adequate notice of specific charges; the time and place for the hearing made it difficult for Harding to attend; and the hearing was not set before impartial fact finders.
It said that Harding was denied the right to call witnesses and cross-examine them; that the USOC failed to provide an appeals procedure and written notice of one; and that Harding was denied the right to a fair hearing before the USFSA and was put in jeopardy twice for the same alleged misconduct.
It also claims the USOC interfered with Harding’s rights as a figure skating association member.
The suit was filed half an hour before the court closed, meaning it was the middle of the night in Norway, where USOC officials were preparing for the hearing and Olympics.
Harvey Schiller, USOC executive director, told the AP that the committee had expected some action by Harding’s attorneys. “We are prepared to defend ourselves,” Schiller said. He declined further comment until USOC reviewed the suit.
Among the immediate questions: Would the USOC honor a state court injunction? Is the committee sobered by the lawsuit’s demand for $20 million in punitive damages?
Meanwhile in Portland, Harding’s ex-husband and chief accuser, Jeff Gillooly, filed a motion in Multnomah County Court seeking permission to travel to Norway and testify at the USOC hearing.
U.S. officials asked that Gillooly travel to Norway and testify regarding his contention that Harding was involved in planning and approving the Kerrigan attack almost from the beginning.
As part of his request, Gillooly also asked the court to release to him results of a lie-detector test he took as part of his guilty plea in the case. His lawyer said Gillooly wanted to take the results to Norway and present them “if requested.”
Three other men are awaiting indictment in the attack, but Harding has not been charged.
The issue before the USOC’s committee is reportedly more about sportsmanship and fair play than the unresolved criminal case. In particular, the focus of Olympic authorities is Harding’s admission that she misled investigators--and the public--about attempts to cover up the crime. USOC officials said the hearing would give Harding an opportunity to explain her actions.
Gillooly wants to go to Oslo to try to right some of the many wrongs that have been done in this crime, said his attorney, Ron Hoevet. “He wants to cooperate with the USOC’s fact finding in an attempt to mitigate the injury he and others have caused Nancy Kerrigan and her family,” Hoevet said.
A judge was to hear arguments on the motion late today.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, said they would not reach a conclusion on the pending criminal investigation until after the Olympics.
A grand jury investigating the crime was extended in Portland until March 21. Deputy District Atty. Jean Maurer told a judge that most of the investigation could be wrapped up this week, but that Harding’s cooperation is necessary to bring the work to an end.
“It has become obvious to us that her continuing cooperation will not be possible at least until after the Olympic and (U.S.) figure skating association proceedings involving her are completed,” Maurer said.
By means of selective interviews, Harding is continuing her campaign for public support.
In an interview with the tabloid TV show “Inside Edition,” Harding reflected on her difficult childhood, tensions with her mother and her desire to make enough money so she will never again have to scrape or sell her car or rely on others.
“I never really had a family. . . . I’ve always wanted to have somebody there who loved me and cared for me,” she told an interviewer for the program, which is to be aired tonight. A transcript provided by producers of the program contained no questions about the facts of the case.
A CBS interview with Harding is also scheduled for airing tonight. An advance transcript quotes the skater reflecting on the cyclone of controversy now swirling around her. “I can’t let this ruin me. I’ve worked too hard, too long, 20 years.”