Kings, NBA investigation clears coach Luke Walton of sexual assault allegations

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After a four-month investigation, investigators hired by the NBA and the Kings said Friday there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations of sexual assault in 2014 made against new Kings coach Luke Walton by Kelli Tennant, a former Los Angeles TV reporter.

A local law firm hired by the league and the Kings interviewed more than 20 people, including friends and former colleagues of Tennant and Walton, but were not able to corroborate Tennant’s claims that Walton assaulted her, pinned her down on a bed and tried to have sex with her in his Los Angeles hotel room when he was an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors.

Tennant declined to participate in the investigation, according to a joint press release by the Kings and the NBA. Tennant made her accusations against Walton in April, only a week after he had been introduced to the community as the new Kings coach. Tennant’s attorney, Garo Mardirossian of Los Angeles, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Walton has not spoken publicly since Tennant made her bombshell claims, though he has continued to carry out his duties as the Kings coach by hiring a staff, conducting player workouts and preparing for what is viewed as a key season for a young team hoping to end more than a decade of losing seasons for Sacramento’s NBA franchise.

“I am 100 percent focused on coaching the Sacramento Kings, and energized to work with this incredible group of players and coaches as we start the preseason. I will have no further comment,” Walton said in a prepared statement.

The Kings organization said in a news release: “Luke Walton is our head coach and we support him and his team as they continue to prepare for the upcoming season.”

The end of the internal investigation against him, carried out by the Sacramento law firm Van Dermyden Maddux, clears the way for the Kings and Walton to carry on with the work of running an NBA team. Walton participated in the investigation and still faces a civil lawsuit filed against him in Los Angeles by Tennant.

Sources close to the investigation said that since Tennant refused to cooperate, investigators focused on details in her lawsuit and her public comments.

Walton was the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers before he was fired April 12 in a front office shakeup. He was hired three days later by Kings GM Vlade Divac and touted as the man who would take an exciting young team to its next level of development – a winning season and a playoff berth.

Tennant filed a civil case against Walton in Los Angeles Superior Court in April, charging him with sexual battery, gender violence and assault. The case is next scheduled for a hearing in October, but no trial date has been set. Tennant did not report the incident to Santa Monica police at the time. Police said they do not intend to investigate the matter because they lack a complaint.

Michael Robbins, a workplace investigation expert who has been called to testify more than 600 times, said it could be several years before a jury hears testimony in the civil lawsuit. Walton’s attorney will present the findings of the independent investigation to support his declaration of innocence while Tennant’s attorneys will attempt to discredit the findings, Robbins said.

“That’s going to be hard to do in this investigation because, seemingly, (the Kings and NBA) did all the right things, hiring an experienced outside person and doing their best to get information from someone who wouldn’t cooperate, so it’s going to be hard to attack that,” Robbins said.

“Clearly, this is a good result. It’s a good result for (Walton) in terms of him staying with the team or not and for his reputation ... but at the same time you never know what a jury is going to do. A jury could, notwithstanding the quality of the investigation, decide he did, in fact, do these things, in which case he’s got an issue, so he’s not out of the woods yet.”

Tennant, a former coworker with Walton at a Los Angeles sports broadcast company, said she met with Walton at a Santa Monica hotel lobby in 2014 to give him a copy of a book she had written about life after retirement from athletics. Tennant had been a college volleyball star.

She said Walton invited her to his hotel room to talk. He then pinned her down on the bed with all his weight she said, kissing her and rubbing herself against her and laughing at her pleas to stop.

“I though he was going to rape me,” Tennant said in a news conference she held after filing the legal complaint. He ultimately released her, she said, allowing her to flee.

Years after the alleged attack, when Walton was head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and Tennant was covering the team as a television reporter, Walton reignited “painful wounds” by repeatedly hugging and kissing Tennant and putting his hands on her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, Tennant alleges in the lawsuit.

“When he did so, Defendant Walton delivered a clear message to Ms. Tennant: he could dominate and control her, and she was his to put his hands on whenever he wanted,” the lawsuit contends.

Walton’s attorney dismissed the charges. “The accuser is an opportunist, not a victim, and her claim is not credible. We intend to prove this in a courtroom,” attorney Mark Baute said.

Tennant, who now runs her own business as a self-help motivator for women, said she tried to forget the episode, but couldn’t. She is speaking now, she said, to help herself get past the emotional trauma, as well as to help other women, and so that Walton doesn’t get away with his behavior.

“This type of behavior cannot be condoned,” Tennant said. “And no woman should ever be made to feel like a victim.”

Tennant said she was 25 at the time of the alleged attack, and just one year into an important job at Spectrum Sportsnet LA. She did not report it to police or to her bosses.

“I was scared,” she said. “When someone assaults you and you think you’re going to be raped, coming forward is a scary thing. I have spent years hoping I could push it to the side

This is a breaking news story. Follow sacbee.com for updates and analysis.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.