Sacramento Kings

In the #MeToo era, Luke Walton’s accuser refused to talk to the Kings. Here’s why

What you need to know about NBA, Kings investigation clearing Luke Walton

Sports reporter Kelli Tennant has filed sexual assault allegations against Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton. Investigators hired by the team and NBA said there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations. Here's a look at the issue.
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Sports reporter Kelli Tennant has filed sexual assault allegations against Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton. Investigators hired by the team and NBA said there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations. Here's a look at the issue.

When the Sacramento Kings and the NBA announced Friday they’ve cleared head coach Luke Walton of sexual assault, they said their investigators talked to 20 people, including Walton.

But Kelli Tennant, who claimed Walton attacked her in a Santa Monica hotel room in 2014, wasn’t one of them.

Legal experts say it’s no surprise Tennant and her legal team declined to sit down with investigators, despite the widespread support for women accusing powerful men of assault in the #MeToo era.

With a lawsuit on the line, experts say the former Los Angeles TV reporter had nothing to gain by participating in the probe. Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, said lawyers want to minimize the number of times their clients detail their allegations, for fear that any inconsistencies in the story could be used by the defense.

“Lawyers generally don’t like it when their clients tell their stories multiple times,” Tuerkheimer said. “I’m not surprised she decided to opt out.

Her lawyers also might have harbored doubts about the integrity or fairness of the investigation, even though outside parties — led by Sacramento law firm Van Dermyden Maddux — conducted the probe.

“Why participate in that if they thought it was rigged?” said Julie Davies, a professor at McGeorge School of Law.

Laura Beth Nielsen, a sociologist and legal expert at Northwestern who’s studied the #MeToo movement, said independent investigations of sexual harassment and assault cases by big companies have developed a reputation of favoring the employee over the accuser.

There’s been “a sort of circle the wagons, we want to have a defensive posture,” Nielsen said. The Kings and the NBA are undoubtedly banking on the Van Dermyden law firm’s reputation “to give that report credibility,” she said.

The law firm bills itself as an expert in sexual assault and workplace issues, and has been hired by UC Davis and the California Senate to investigate sexual abuse allegations. An NBA senior vice president, Elizabeth Maringer, also worked on the investigation.

Seven months before the Walton case surfaced, Sue Ann Van Dermyden, founder of the Sacramento law firm, wrote a report on the #MeToo movement saying companies have a tricky path to navigate when high-profile employees are accused of sexual assault or harassment.

“While employers are under greater pressure than ever before to act quickly in response to allegations of sexual harassment, employers also face increasing demands to ensure that investigations are conducted, and any resulting employment decisions are reached, by a fair and thorough process,” she wrote in the report, titled “One Year later: Investigations in the Post-Weinstein Era,” which was delivered at an employment law conference in Florida.

The report examined investigations into such celebrities as movie tycoon Harvey Weinstein, former Sen. Al Franken, former “Today” host Matt Lauer and casino executive Steve Wynn.

Van Dermyden added that outsourcing the investigation to an independent party can be helpful. “By using independent counsel in the right circumstances, a company can better protect itself against accusations,” she wrote.

Tennant, in her April lawsuit, suggested there was good reason why women wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking out against an NBA coach and former star player.

“Like women in so many other industries from Hollywood to politics, woman connected to the National Basketball Association have long had to suffer in silence through the indignities of gender abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of famous, wealthy powerful men,” her suit reads.

“Aided by their enormous fame, money and power, and motivated by a culture that tolerates misogynistic gender bias, too many men in professional basketball think their fame, wealth and power entitles them to a license to sexually exploit and degrade women whenever they want. But no longer.”

Nonetheless, Davies, the McGeorge professor, said Tennant’s refusal to cooperate with the Kings and the NBA was somewhat at odds with her decision to speak at a news conference in Los Angeles shortly after suing Walton in April.

“Does it surprise me? A bit because ... she had been fairly public in bringing (the allegations) to light,” Davies said.

Tennant’s attorneys at the Los Angeles law firm of Mardirossian & Associates didn’t respond Friday to a request for comment from The Sacramento Bee.

At an April news conference after he suit was filed, she said Walton, then an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, sexually assaulted her at a hotel room in Santa Monica. Tennant said Walton pinned her down on the bed, kissed her and rubbed himself against her.

“I thought he was going to rape me,” she said at the news conference.

Walton has denied the allegations.

“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 Friday in a prepared statement.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.
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