SBJ/August 29 - September 4, 2005/Other News

Lawyer calls probe ‘witch hunt’

An attorney for the Jockeys’ Guild, facing a deadline to produce documents in a congressional investigation into the lack of insurance coverage for many jockeys, called the probe a witch hunt and questioned the relationship between the congressman spearheading the inquiry and track operator Churchill Downs Inc.

Churchill Downs and a spokesman for Rep. Ed Whitfield strongly denied suggestions by attorney Lloyd Ownbey, who faces a deadline this week to give Jockeys’ Guild papers to Congress.
“We think they are being funded in this little operation by a certain track that has litigation against us by the name of Churchill Downs,” guild legal counsel Lloyd Ownbey said of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.

Ownbey said he was not suggesting that Churchill Downs officials and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who is overseeing the inquiry as chairman of the subcommittee, were engaging in a “quid pro quo.” But Ownbey added, “I would be surprised if he doesn’t get benefits from Churchill Downs.”

Jeff Miles, spokesman for Whitfield, said Ownbey’s comments were “absolutely absurd.” Churchill Downs spokeswoman Julie Koenig-Loignon called the implication ludicrous.

In a letter sent this month,Whitfield and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., asked the guild to provide numerous documents by Wednesday or face the possibility of having the information subpoenaed.

Ownbey said he would try to answer the letter’s questions by this week’s deadline, but added, “Whether I can answer them to the satisfaction of the congressman, I don’t know. The questions are asking for the moon.”

The guild has been under fire since last year when many jockeys learned that the organization’s $1 million insurance policy, which jockeys thought covered them for racetrack accidents, had expired two years earlier. Many jockeys found out they were not covered only after Gary Birzer, a West Virginia jockey who was paralyzed last year, discovered that he was without insurance to pay for his nearly $800,000 in medical bills.

Jockeys’ Guild employees have given contradictory answers about how the guild’s roughly 1,200 members were notified that the insurance had expired.

Guild employees told congressional investigators that jockeys “were given formal written notice” that the policy would not be renewed, according to Whitfield and Stupak’s letter to the guild.

But guild CEO Wayne Gertmenian stated in court documents, “After reasonable investigation [the guild] is not aware of how members [of the guild] were notified.”

Asked which answer was true, Ownbey backed Gertmenian’s statement. “If that is what he stated in an interrogatory, that is what must have happened, because he is a truthful man,” Ownbey said.

Ownbey also maintained that the guild’s board of directors in 2002 decided to allow the accident coverage to lapse. That contradicts six guild board members who told SportsBusiness Journal they have no recollection of ever making such a decision.

The House panel, a subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has asked for minutes or documents related to any meeting in which the Jockeys’ Guild board made a decision to allow the insurance to lapse.

“I have not laid my eyes on any documents dealing with that decision,” Ownbey said, then added later, “I haven’t made a purposeful effort to lay eyes on them.”

A Churchill Downs political action committee made five contributions totaling $3,750 to Whitfield’s political campaigns between April 1998 and February 2004, according to the Federal Elections Commission. During that same time period the Churchill Downs PAC gave more than $50,000 to a variety of political candidates and political action committees, according to federal elections records.

“Through our political action committee, we do contribute to campaigns, but we contribute to a number of candidates in the state of Kentucky,” said Churchill spokeswoman Koenig-Loignon. “But back to the claim [Ownbey] raised about financing this investigation, our response is that is absolutely ludicrous. We will be more than happy to cooperate with [Whitfield’s] committee and the questions that are put to us, but that is the extent of our involvement.”

Whitfield spokesman Miles said, “This is a bipartisan effort, this investigation. The investigation is looking after the welfare of the jockeys and the backside workers as Congressman Whitfield is looking for a solution to this problem. After hearing Mr. Ownbey’s comments, it appears that he is not interested in looking for a solution.”

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