'Farce,' says skating fix accused
ROME, Italy -- The reputed Russian mobster charged with fixing two figure skating events in the worst judging scandal in Olympics history is insisting he is innocent and that the case against him is a "farce," his lawyer said.
"He's absolutely surprised. He doesn't know anything about the Salt Lake City Olympic games. He's not even a fan of figure-skating," Luca Saldarelli told reporters after meeting his client for the first time in jail.
Alleged gangster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, 53, who was arrested by Italian police on Wednesday in the plush Tuscan seaside resort town of Forte dei Marmi, was described by his lawyer as "an intermediary in some international affairs, that's all I can say."
Meanwhile in Moscow, the Russian figure skating pair who won the Olympic gold medal allegedly because of the mobster's intervention said they would sue U.S. television networks for using pictures of them in their coverage of the scandal.
Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya said their pictures had appeared on the screen "while they were talking about some kind of the Russian mafia," Sikharulidze said in remarks aired on Russian television on Friday.
Saldarelli called his first meeting with his client in Venice's Santa Maria Maggiore prison as "very positive. He obviously feels he has done nothing wrong."
Asked what his client had to say in general about the case, Saldarelli replied: "He said it's a farce."
U.S. officials are seeking his extradition to face one count of bribery to influence a sporting competition and one count of wire fraud. If convicted, Tokhtakhounov could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and fined up to $250,000 on both charges.
Before meeting with the suspect, Saldarelli had said that he expected Tokhtakhounov to fight extradition to the U.S. and would plead innocent.
Italian police said the Russian may have been in contact with at least six Olympic judges in his alleged plot to fix medals at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
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 the criminal complaint, which was filed in Manhattan federal court. Both teams won their events.
The Salt Lake judging scandal resulted in a duplicate set of gold medals being awarded to the Canadian team who finished second to the Russians in the pairs competition.
On Thursday, an Italian organized-crime unit released transcripts of wire-tapped phone conversations between Tokhtakhounov and unnamed co-conspirators during the games.
An FBI affidavit said Interpol, the international police organisation, believed Tokhtakhounov -- known in Russia as "the Taiwanese" because of his Asiatic-looking features -- had been involved in drug distribution, illegal firearms sales and trafficking in stolen vehicles, as well as having allegedly fixed beauty pageants in Moscow in the early 1990s.
The French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne who said before recanting that she had been pressured to vote for the Russians told the Associated Press: "I don't know this man, I have no contact with him."
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.
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.
Sale and Pelletier said on Wednesday they were not surprised by charges that their competition was fixed. (Full story)
--CNN Producer Phil Hirschkorn and CNN Justice Correspondent Kelli Arena contributed to this report
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