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Ha´aretz English Edition, 02/08/2002:

Mobster linked to Olympics bribe scandal has Israeli passport

By Yossi Melman
Ha'aretz Correspondent and agencies


The man at the center of an alleged Olympic figure skating bribe scandal, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, is an Israeli citizen – according to reports Thursday in the Russian media. Tokhtakhounov was arrested in Italy for allegedly fixing two events at the Salt Lake City Games. Police believe he may have contacted as many as six Olympic figure skating judges, Italian police said.

An Interior Ministry spokesman refused to deny or confirm the report, but it is believed that the Uzbek-born mobster also has Russian, French and German passports, and he has been linked in the past to several prominent Israelis, including businessman Michael Chernoy.

An Italian organized-crime unit revealed details of the case Thursday, a day after arresting Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov in Venice on U.S. conspiracy charges.

The Salt Lake judging scandal, the biggest in Olympics history, resulted in a duplicate set of gold medals being awarded to the Canadian team that finished second to the Russians.

Tokhtakhounov is accused of scheming to get a French judge to vote for the Russian pairs team, and a Russian judge to vote in turn for the French ice dancing team, according to a criminal complaint filed in Manhattan federal court. Both teams won their events.

U.S. prosecutors say a "co-conspirator" connected with the Russian Skating Federation did the legwork after being contacted by Tokhtakhounov. The co-conspirator was not named in the complaint, nor were any of the judges or other people who might have been involved in the scheme.

"We have recorded a conversation in which the suspect indicates that six judges may have been involved," police Col. Giovanni Mainolfi said. "However, we have no specific evidence against these judges at this time."

Nine judges vote on each of the figure skating events.

Wiretaps used in an organized crime investigation captured a series of telephone calls between Tokhtakhounov in Italy and unnamed co-conspirators during the games.

Tokhtakhounov was expected to plead innocent to all charges and fight extradition, said his lawyer, Luca Salvarelli, who had not yet met with his client. "According to what his relatives told me, he will deny any wrongdoing," the lawyer said.

A week after the pairs competition, the ice dancing team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won France's first gold in figure skating since 1932.

However, the Russian judge, Alla Shekhovtsova, voted for the second-place Russians not the French team, indicating that the scheme wasn't carried out the way prosecutors believe it was planned.

"Everybody wants to claim a part of our victory at the Olympic Games for themselves," Peizerat told The Associated Press. "The judges think it's thanks to them that we're Olympic champions, top skating officials do, too, now it's the Russian mafia."

In exchange for fixing the events, U.S. prosecutors say, the reputed mobster wanted a visa to return to France, where he once lived.

International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta said he first learned of the alleged conspiracy on the news and had never heard of Tokhtakhounov.

Asked whether the ISU could be forced to cancel or review the Salt Lake City results, Cinquanta said, "I don't think so. I don't know."

Russian sports officials derided the accusations. Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets called them a "funny fantasy" - fodder for a Hollywood script.

Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won the gold medal by the smallest of margins in pairs figure skating, defeating Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. But French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said the next day she'd been pressured to vote for the Russians, who slipped during their routine while the Canadians were flawless.

Le Gougne later recanted but still was suspended, as was Didier Gailhaguet, the head of the French skating federation.

"I don't know this man, I have no contact with him," Le Gougne told the AP, referring to Tokhtakhounov. "This affair doesn't concern me."

She said she never had any contact with any Russian in deciding whom to vote for in the pairs competition. "For me, the Russians were the best," she said.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said: "While we knew from previous investigations that the judgment in the pairs figure skating was not correct, we are shocked to learn of the alleged involvement of organized crime."

The U.S. Olympic Committee, in a letter to Rogge, said it shared his "call to aggressive action."

"Any connection between organized crime and the Olympic Games must be dealt with in the strongest possible manner, using all available resources and means," it said.

Italian police said Tokhtakhounov had a phone conversation with a French man, identified on the tape as "Chevalier," after the Russians won gold in pairs.

"Everything will go well now because the French, with their vote, have made them champions," Chevalier said, according to the transcript. "It happened, it happened. Even if the Canadians are 10 times better, the French with their vote have given them first place."

Other transcripts detail a conversation between Tokhtakhounov and a female ice dancer's mother. And after the Olympics, the female ice dancer called Tokhtakhounov and said she could have won without his help, according to the transcript. While Anissina was the ice dancer who won the gold, the papers didn't identify her as the woman on the phone.

Police say that during wiretaps in the Russian mafia investigation, they uncovered details of the alleged ice-skating fix, as well as Tokhtakhounov's ties to other sports figures.

Italian police gave few other details, but did cite Ukrainian tennis player Andrei Medvedev, whose Web site featured a 1999 picture of himself with Tokhtakhounov, along with Russian tennis stars Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. That photo and two others with Tokhtakhounov were removed from the site Thursday.

Kafelnikov, winner of two Grand Slam singles titles, called Tokhtakhounov a "good friend."

"Whatever happened there, I'm sure it's some kind of mistake," Kafelnikov said. 

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