The Sacramento Kings and the NBA announced Thursday they have started a joint investigation into allegations that new head coach Luke Walton sexually assaulted a former sports reporter in a Santa Monica hotel room five years ago.
“The Kings and the NBA take these allegations very seriously and will collaborate to conduct a complete and thorough investigation,” the Kings said in a statement.
The investigation team is headed by Sacramento attorneys Sue Ann Van Dermyden and Jennifer Doughty – high-profile experts in workplace issues and sexual assault claims – as well as Elizabeth Maringer, an NBA senior vice president and assistant general counsel for the league.
The attorneys are considered experts in workplace harassment and discrimination issues and are being brought in to oversee the review of the explosive allegations against Walton by Kelli Tennant, who covered the Los Angeles Lakers and other L.A. teams for Spectrum SportsNet LA.
Tennant, 31, a one-time friend of Walton and his wife, filed a lawsuit Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court accusing Walton of assault, battery, sexual assault and sexual battery stemming from an incident in which she claims Walton pinned her to his hotel room bed and groped and kissed her.
Walton’s attorney, Mark Baute, has denounced the claims from Tennant and her attorneys as false, and said he will prove that in court, vowing not to “pay them a dime.”
Thursday’s announcement is the first move by the Kings to address the controversy over the claims, which stem from a time when Walton was an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors. The alleged incident occurred before Walton was hired to coach the Lakers in April 2016.
Van Dermyden declined to comment Thursday. Her firm has previously investigated controversial incidents, including an internal affairs review of Lt. John Pike, the UC Davis police officer who pepper sprayed students demonstrating peacefully on the Quad in November 2011.
Walton, 39, was introduced as the Kings new coach on April 15, and is continuing to build his new staff in Sacramento despite the allegations.
The team made it clear that the decision to review the case does not stem from any new evidence or suspicions, but instead shows that Kings officials are handling the matter responsibly.
A league source told The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday that Kings general manager Vlade Divac had no knowledge of the allegations against Walton when he hired him 10 days ago. It’s too early in the investigative process to tell if Walton’s four-year contract with the Kings could be terminated, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the investigation.
Although the Kings say it’s too early to tell how long the investigation will take, it could be concluded in a matter of weeks. One expert in such investigations lauded the selection of Van Dermyden.
“She has the biggest independent workplace investigation firm in the state,” said Michael Robbins, president of EXTTI, a company that provides expert testimony, training and investigative services in employment matters. “... They’re used to high-profile investigations and they have an excellent reputation.
“If I was hiring somebody to do a Luke Walton investigation, that’s who I would hire.”
The investigation is expected to be completed long before the civil case against Walton goes to trial, something Robbins said could take four to five years. The first published court date for the case is October 2020.
“The civil calendar is very heavy in Los Angeles and it’s particularly heavy in the employment area,” Robbins said. “... That’s how long it takes in Los Angeles to get to trial.”
Robbins said Van Dermyden and the other independent investigators will want to interview Tennant and Walton.
Tennant would “look really bad” if she doesn’t cooperate with the investigation and Walton would “look really, really bad,” Robbins said.
Investigators will want to know why Tennant didn’t report the incident to police and why she didn’t come forward sooner, Robbins said. They also will want to interview anyone Tennant told about the alleged sexual assault, including family members and friends.
Garo Mardirossian, an attorney representing Tennant, acknowledged during a news conference Tuesday in Los Angeles that his case lacks evidence, something Robbins said is not uncommon in cases like this.
“People don’t always assault people in front of other people and they don’t sexually harass people in front of other people,” Robbins said. “As an investigator, you’re trying to find corroboration.
“In this case, she says she talked to family members or friends, so you want to talk to them, recognizing that they may have some biases.”
Robbins said the case can be investigated and litigated without proof.
“There does not have to be proof in harassment and assault situations, and there almost never is,” Robbins said. “... Ultimately, this is going to be almost entirely a he said/she said situation.
“She’s going to say these things happened. He’s going to say they didn’t. (Van Dermyden’s) job is to determine credibility. She’s going to decide, ‘Who do I believe and why do I believe them?’ The standard she’s going to use — is it more likely this happened or more likely it didn’t happen — is the same standard a jury would use.”
Robbins believes Tennant and her attorneys will cooperate with investigators, but he noted that Mardirossian has added trial lawyer David deRuberitis to his legal team.
“David’s a trial attorney, so it shows that they’re serious about litigation,” Robbins said. “It may be that, because he’s involved, they really are intending to go to trial, but my guess is they will cooperate with the investigation.”