Russian charged in Olympics skate scheme

Alleged mobster accused of role in fixing 2 events

August 01, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - An alleged Russian organized-crime figure was charged yesterday with conspiring to fix the pairs figure skating and ice dancing competitions at the recent Salt Lake Winter Olympics, which were dominated by a judging scandal in the pairs competition.

Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov - who was arrested by Italian police at his resort home in Forte dei Marmi - appeared to have a singular motivation: getting a visa to return to France, where he once lived.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan alleged in an unsealed criminal complaint that Tokhtakhounov conceived and directed a scheme with a second Russian mobster and a member of the Russian Skating Federation to secure a gold medal for the Russian pairs skaters and for the French ice dancers, one of whom is Russian.

The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze narrowly won the gold medal over Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who were later awarded a duplicate gold medal because of the ensuing judging controversy. Sale and Pelletier declined to comment yesterday. The French ice dancers Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won the gold over a Russian ice dancing team.

Italian police provided the FBI with wiretaps of Tokhtakhounov's home telephone, which were installed as part of an investigation into his criminal activities. According to the FBI, explicit conversations about the scheme were recorded between Tokhtakhounov and his conspirators, and between him, Anissina, who was born in Russia and skated for France, and her mother.

In fact, in a vivid conversation with Anissina's mother in February, Tokhtakhounov assured her that even if her daughter "falls, we will make sure she is No. 1."

If convicted of the charges against him - conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bribery - Tokhtakhounov faces maximum prison time of 10 years and a fine of at least $500,000.

The U.S. attorney is seeking Tokhtakhounov's extradition from Italy.

The complaint casts the Salt Lake City figure skating scandal in a more serious light than the cronyism and vote-swapping that have been known to taint the increasingly troubled sport. During the past four years, four judges have been suspended.

After the Salt Lake Olympics, a French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, was suspended by the International Skating Union for not reporting pressure she initially said was put on her by Didier Gailhaguet, president of the French Skating Federation, to vote for the Russian pairs team.

She later recanted and said that it was Canadian officials who had pressured her. The ISU suspended Le Gougne and Gailhaguet for three years.

The U.S. attorney's complaint did not describe the possibility of a wider conspiracy or of contact between Tokhtakhounov, or his unnamed co-conspirators, with Le Gougne.

"We have alleged no connection between this man with any officials other than with Russian federation officials," James B. Comey, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, said in a news conference.

On Feb. 5, the Italian wiretaps recorded Tokhtakhounov's request to someone identified as another Russian mobster to get the number of a Russian Skating Federation official. The second mobster told Tokhtakhounov that the federation official "is close to us, he is a good guy, he will do it."

Tokhtakhounov's action apparently came soon after he said he received a phone call from the mother of the female ice dancer, presumably Anissina.

A week later, after Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze's pairs victory, the mobsters spoke again. The second Russian organized-crime figure expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the competition and suggested that Tokhtakhounov could call the ice dancer's "mother or the father and tell them everything will be OK." He appeared to be referring to Anissina.

The second Russian mobster added, "Our Sikharulidze fell, the Canadians were 10 times better and in spite of that the French with their vote gave us first place." And, he said, "everything is going the way you need it."

They also discussed the upcoming judging in ice dancing, in which the French and the Italian teams were the favorites. The second mobster said the French pair had "only three judges," and of the two judges they needed to win the gold medal, "one is ours, and the other our friends will give them."

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