Crime

Johnson-Klein focus of court battle

Stacy Johnson-Klein and Fresno State accused each other of abusing power as lawyers launched opening salvos Tuesday in the widely anticipated trial of the former coach's sexual discrimination lawsuit.

Johnson-Klein lawyer Warren Paboojian portrayed the university as a bastion of male sexism that used its unchecked authority to crush Johnson-Klein's career as a women's basketball coach when she complained about unequal treatment for female athletes and rejected the sexual advances of the athletic department's top administrator.

Fresno State lawyer Mick Marderosian portrayed Johnson-Klein as a coach intoxicated with her local fame and increasingly dependent on prescription drugs whose erratic behavior threatened her players' safety. He said Johnson-Klein also used her near-total control over the players' athletic careers to coerce some into being her servants and one to hand over her own bottle of prescription painkillers.

Tuesday's opening day of what could be a six-week trial in Fresno County Superior Court had no shortage of drama.

It began in the morning with Paboojian, standing only a few feet from where Fresno State President John Welty was sitting at the defense team's table, concluding his 80- minute statement with a simple summation: "This [trial] is about Stacy Johnson-Klein and the dreams that were ruined by this university."

It continued with Marderosian's own 80-minute statement that concluded in the early afternoon with an equally simple explanation for how both sides, once on the best of terms, came to be in Judge Donald S. Black's courtroom. Rapping the table with his knuckles only a foot from where Johnson-Klein was seated, Marderosian said: "The responsibility and the buck stops right here."

And the day ended with brief testimony from four witnesses, including the estranged wife of a Fresno State computer specialist who said her husband in 2005 implied that he, with the knowledge of university officials, had deleted some Johnson-Klein e-mails that were damaging to the university's position after the coach was fired.

Former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich, who recently settled her own sexual discrimination lawsuit against the university for $3.5 million, was the day's final witness.

Milutinovich answered about 15 minutes of questions from Dan Siegel, another Johnson-Klein lawyer, most dealing with federal gender-equity laws. Milutinovich is expected to continue her testimony this morning.

Paboojian had three main themes in his opening statement.

The first was Johnson-Klein's early years: an impoverished girl living in an Oklahoma trailer park, raised by her mother after her father left the family, mowing lawns at age 12 to help support her mother and brother; and dreams of athletic glory that came at least partly true when she became a standout high school and college basketball player.

The second was the joy of Johnson-Klein's early years at Fresno State: the dream-come-true collegiate head coaching job landed in 2002; more wins than losses on the basketball court; dramatic increases in season-ticket sales; and enthusiastic fan support for her sideline coaching style and on-court results.

The third theme was the unraveling of Johnson-Klein's up-by-the-bootstraps career in late 2004 and early 2005 when university officials decided to destroy her for her outspoken gender- equity lobbying and what Paboojian said was her spurning of then-athletic director Scott Johnson's sexual advances.

This descent as described by Paboojian was complex, and had its roots in the early 1990s, when he said an anti-women culture sprouted at Fresno State in the wake of a federal investigation into gender inequities in the athletic department.

There were many elements in what Paboojian described as a coordinated effort against Johnson-Klein: Johnson's polarizing decisions, lower-level athletic department administrators who did Johnson's bidding and a university administration that condoned Johnson's behavior.

Marderosian said much of what Paboojian said was "a smokescreen" with no relevance to the trial's essential point -- the threat Johnson-Klein's behavior posed to her players' well-being, and the university's legal responsibility to avert a crisis with preemptive action.

Marderosian said Johnson-Klein was happy at Fresno State and made no complaints about sexual harassment by her supervisors until shortly before her suspension in February 2005, when the university had begun investigating player complaints about her actions.

Johnson-Klein in her final months as a Fresno State employee became increasingly dependent on prescription painkillers, leading to erratic and dangerous behavior, Marderosian said.

He listed several examples: walking out of a Louisiana restaurant without paying the bill for the team's meal; insisting that the team bus in New York City, while taking an ill player to the hospital, pull over so she could get off to go shopping; and asking a team official who had come to her hotel room on a road trip whether the Bulldogs had won the game, only to be told the game was the following evening.

Marderosian defended the integrity of Fresno State officials, and criticized the "character assassination" of Johnson, who retired amid considerable controversy in early 2005. Marderosian said there is no evidence to support sexual harassment charges against Johnson.

During afternoon testimony, Fresno State computer specialist Phillip Jensen said his bosses had him retrieve Johnson-Klein's e-mails after she was fired. He said he neither deleted selected e-mails nor altered those he found.

Jensen was followed to the witness box by his wife, Jennifer Morelos-Jensen, who was called by Paboojian. The couple is going through a divorce.

Morelos-Jensen said her husband told her in 2005 that he was ordered by university officials to filter and edit Johnson-Klein's e-mails. She said her husband's manner when telling her this, including his use of finger movements to suggest quotation marks around "edit," implied to her that he actually had deleted some e-mails.

Under questioning from Marderosian, Morelos-Jensen acknowledged her husband never spoke the word "deleted."

  Comments