Alen Hadzic at the Challenge SNCF Réseau 2016. (Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

The attorney representing Alen Hadzic — the alternate Olympic fencer and Montclair High School graduate accused of sexual misconduct by three women — says he wants to be clear: “There’s never been any rape accusation made to Alen at any point in his life.”

“He’s never been accused of rape, ever,” attorney Michael Palma said.

That includes in any criminal, civil or other matter — including the one under review by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the body charged with investigating reports of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee — Palma said.

And the attorney said that also includes during a 2013 Title IX investigation regarding one of the women who brought complaints to SafeSport — though he acknowledged it involved an issue of consent. Hadzic has confirmed to USA Today one of the allegations was first made in 2013, when both he and the woman were attending Columbia University and competing as fencers there.

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Palma declined to describe the particular allegations against Hadzic in the Title IX case, which resulted in the fencer’s suspension from Columbia for a year. He said a “nonconsensual sexual incident” does not necessarily involve the use of force “or taking advantage of someone.”

“Hypothetically, it can be a situation where the parties are mutually, willingly and affirmatively engaged together in a sexual act without any impropriety or coercion and everyone is of sound mind and, several days later, one of the parties decides to retract their consent after the act has occurred,” Palma said.

He added that given the facts of the matter in that case — without saying what they were — he didn’t consider the ruling appropriate. “Their rationale literally runs completely against what they actually determined. It makes no sense whatsoever,” he said.

But Jack Wiener, an attorney and adjunct law professor who has represented one of the women in the complaints before SafeSport, called that description one that “slithers around his admitting the following — under New York criminal law, a person commits rape when he has sex with another person ‘without [her] consent.'”

“Mr. Palma himself refers here to a ‘nonconsensual sexual incident,'” Wiener continued. “He evades admitting whether Mr. Hadzic was accused of having sex with women without their consent.”

Palma also questioned whether an allegation as serious as one of sexual impropriety should even be reviewed by a school panel — “given that their determination here makes no sense whatsoever with their rationale yet will be attached to Alen like a Scarlet Letter.”

“I have a suspicion that the public in general believes that hearing panels in Title IX cases are made up of experts on these matters,” Palma said. “That is never, ever the case. They actually are made up of random faculty members. … These are the folks who make incredibly significant determinations on these matters. And, they are treated as having a full understanding of the rules, which they don’t. Again, if you read their rationale, it cements the fact that they don’t.”

The claim and its ruling have not been made public.

Wiener has declined to say what specific claims the woman he has represented made. The New York Times reported one woman said Hadzic had grabbed her buttocks and pushed her against a dresser after she went to his apartment with a female friend whom she didn’t want to leave alone. The Times also reports at least two of the women were fencers who knew Hadzic during their time together at Columbia. In all, the allegations relate to incidents from 2013 to 2015.

The case has taken several turns over the last few months. Hadzic — an avid soccer player who took up fencing while at Montclair High School, then become a three-time regional champion and made the U.S. Junior World team by his senior year — was suspended from participating in the Olympics because of the SafeSport investigation on June 2, Montclair Local first reported. An arbitrator lifted the suspension later that month.

USA Today reports Judge Sherrie L. Krauser, who presided over the hearing, said the suspension was inappropriate because there hadn’t been any new allegation over the last two years, and the continuing probation supervision of USA Fencing and regulation of members by the U.S. Olympic teams would guarantee the safety and well-being of others. That supervision came in the form of a “safety plan” by USA Fencing that restricted Hadzic from staying in the Olympic Village. Hadzic unsuccessfully sought to have those restrictions set aside.

“Further, I do not find it likely that [Mr. Hadzic’s] continued participation would be detrimental to the reputation of the United States or his sport,” USA Today quoted Krauser saying.

Wiener called that “jaw dropping.”

“I wonder what she thinks now, after tens of thousands of reactions to the story on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other media,” he said.

He also said there is no statute of limitations applying to complaints to SafeSport.

Reports by USA Today, the Times, Buzzfeed and others drew international attention to the case, as Hadzic fought the safety plan. In that time, much of the discussion around the case — in particular on social media, but in some published commentary as well — has alternately described the allegations against Hadzic as ones of “sexual misconduct” “rape” or “sexual assault.”

That includes in a letter to USA by at least some of Hadzic’s fellow fencers, saying they would feel unsafe were Hadzic allowed to stay in the Olympic Village.

“We are all aware of the accusations of sexual assault raised against Alen. Many of us have been bystanders and/or witnesses to his misconduct,” the letter states. Montclair Local has been provided copies by two sources; one didn’t reflect any signatures and the other reflected a signature from a single member of the US Olympic Fencing team. Buzzfeed, however, reported it was submitted to USA Fencing signed by the entire roster of Team USA.

SafeSport itself does not disclose the nature of allegations it’s investigating. A spokesman for the organization has also stressed steps it takes on matters such as the suspension aren’t an indication of what its investigation may ultimately find.

“The SafeSport rules don’t allow an individual who is under investigation to speak about the investigation, so they are not allowed to defend themselves publicly throughout the process, while everyone else is allowed to speak wildly and recklessly about what they think is going on or make statements that are absolutely not true against an individual without any consequence to them – no matter how wild and baseless the statements that are being made are,” Palma, representing Hadzic, said. “Regardless, the damage is publicly being done to the individual and the individual has to sit quietly without being able to say how false the statements are.”

And Palma said claimants aren’t privy to claims other accusers may have made — “Any statements made outside of their own claims, it’s unsubstantiated.”

Wiener, meanwhile, said he’s continuing to fight Hadzic’s participation in the Olympics. As an alternate on the men’s epee team, he’d only compete if another fencer is injured or otherwise unavailable. The team’s competitions begin Friday.

Wiener has been in continued contact with the International Fencing Federation (known as the FIE because of its French acronym) over a complaint he’s sought to file with the group. In correspondence seen by Montclair Local, FIE Safeguarding told Wiener Wednesday any complaint must be filled within 60 days following the incriminating acts or the date of their discovery by the complainant.

Wiener wrote back to the FIE: “Let me get this straight. You are saying that if the FIE receives a signed complaint from a female with a detailed and credible description of how she has been sexually assaulted — even raped — 61 days prior to the date of her report by a male fencer, you will allow the fencer to compete in the Olympics? So … similarly, Dr. Larry Nasser would have avoided FIE sanction, had he provided his services to a fencer … but only more than 60 days prior to the report?”

A spokesperson for FIE has not yet returned a message Montclair Local sent Thursday afternoon seeking to confirm that policy, and asking what steps the FIE would take in response to complaints of sexual misconduct.