LOUISVILLE, Ky. - College tuition. Two cars. A fully paid off house. Ten million dollars.
That’s what the FBI says the estranged wife of an equipment manager tried to extort from Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.
The alleged demands were made public Friday in a criminal complaint released shortly after Karen Cunagin Sypher surrendered to federal authorities and made an initial appearance in federal court. Along with the extortion allegations, Sypher is accused of lying to the FBI.
She didn’t enter a plea at Friday’s court appearance, but was released on her own recognizance with a warning from a federal magistrate not to speak ill of Pitino.
Sypher surrendered to federal authorities just over a week after the case exploded into the public when Pitino released a statement saying someone had tried to extort him.
Since that April 18 statement, Pitino has been silent. His attorney, Steve Pence, said Friday he has directed the coach not to comment further on the case.
“While Coach Pitino takes no comfort in this prosecution and remains astonished by these events, it marks a turning point that allows him to focus with a clear mind once again on his family and his team,” Pence said in a statement.
According to the criminal complaint, Sypher’s husband, Tim Sypher, brought Pitino a written list of demands including tuition, two cars of her choice, paying off her house and $3,000 per month. The demands later escalated to $10 million, the complaint said.
Authorities did not specify what sort of information Sypher may have been trying to use to extort the successful coach and said only that Pitino believed it was related to an unspecified 2003 encounter with her. Pitino took over Louisville’s basketball program in 2001.
The 56-year-old coach said last week that he had reported the extortion allegations to the FBI last month. Since then, Karen Sypher has given some media interviews, and one station said it chose not to air her allegations because they could not be confirmed.
Tim Sypher, a longtime Pitino aide, voiced his support for his boss in a statement last week. Divorce papers for the couple have been filed in recent weeks.
Outside the courthouse, Karen Sypher’s attorney, Thomas Clay, declined to predict what might happen.
“The criminal complaint clearly reflects other people were involved in this,” Clay said. “Whether they will be charged, I don’t know.”
Clay declined to comment on Sypher’s allegation against Pitino. In court, she answered only “yes, sir” to questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Whalin, and she would not comment later.
According to the criminal complaint written by FBI Special Agent Steven Wight, Pitino received two voicemail messages from a man who did not identify himself on Feb. 26 and a third call on Feb. 28.
Pitino told Wight the first two concerned personal allegations that were “criminal in nature” and could harm the coach’s reputation, while the third was a threat to make the allegations public in two weeks.
Wight notes in the complaint that the truth about the allegations against Pitino is “suspect.” The allegations were left out of the criminal complaint.
Pitino told Wight he met with the Syphers after the first two calls and asked what she wanted and Karen Sypher talked about a house, cars and cash. Pitino told Wight that he played the voicemail for her and she denied knowing about the calls.
Kenyon Meyer, Tim Sypher’s attorney, said his client is not being targeted in the criminal investigation and is cooperating.
“This whole series of events has just been devastating,” Meyer said.
Wight said Karen Sypher hired an attorney March 22 and the attorney mailed Pitino a letter repeating the allegations made in the voicemail, but in greater detail.
In the letter, Sypher also accused Pitino of orchestrating the threatening calls, Wight said. The attorney filed a divorce petition on her behalf and made demands of Pitino, including one for $10 million, Wight said. An affidavit containing the allegations against Pitino and attached to the petition has been sealed.
Pitino signed a three-year contract extension with the Cardinals in May 2007 that could keep him at the school through 2013. The deal pays him an annual salary of $2.5 million a year if he stays until the end of the contract. He’ll receive loyalty bonuses of $3.6 million in 2010 and 2013 if he remains with the school.
Kuhn said a federal grand jury is scheduled to meet May 11 and 12 and could hear the case.
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