George Gibney (left); Journalist and author Irvin Muchnik
With a major new BBC/Second Captains podcast series on George Gibney scheduled for release in May, Irvin Muchnik, who has been on the trail of the swimming coach for years, details recent developments in the US and his lengthy struggle getting even Irish media interested in Gibney.
Hobbled by George Gibney’s lack of name recognition on this side of the Atlantic, and pusillanimous by nature when it comes to tackling important sexual assault narratives until they are either the flavour of the month or have risen, in the cliché, to the level of “a dead girl or a live boy”, major American outlets have been slow to pick up on the documented reporting so far published only at my modest-circulation platforms.
The current connection to the more general and better-understood federal grand jury investigation of USA Swimming is a hook for which I remain hopeful for major coverage, though I am not unrealistically optimistic.
Definitive action on George Gibney seems to be one of those chicken-and-egg or “Alphonse-and-Gaston” processes, with multiple moving parts.
Will the Irish government ask for Gibney’s extradition before they are certain that the return answer would be ‘yes’?
Will the US government seek to deport Gibney before being issued a formal extradition request?
And perhaps equally important: In the realpolitik always factoring into such matters, will US Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MALRS) office ever flip the switch on absent pressure from a more powerful media player than myself?
In 2016, during an early stage of my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, I was interviewed for a segment on Fox News called Sports Court. You can view the clip, “Gov’t hiding immigration docs on accused pedophile,” here.
Ironically, the interviewer and producer of Sports Court, Tamara Holder, herself would resign from Fox News late that year as part of a multimillion-dollar settlement of a claim that she was sexually harassed and assaulted by an executive.
Holder thus became part of the real-life narrative of the current movie Bombshell, which is mostly about Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, two higher-profile ex-Fox News personalities.
Later in 2016, with the help of a friend of mine who was a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, the newspaper’s long-time federal courts reporter, Bob Egelko, was enlisted to write about Judge Breyer’s FOIA ruling.
And that’s it for American media on George Gibney.
Heinous scandals with long tails — whether they’re Jeffrey Epstein or Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein or George Gibney — are always festivals of missed opportunities.
In 2014 Chuck Wielgus, the chief executive of USA Swimming, withdrew from his scheduled induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in response to a petition campaign by abuse victims who raised the public consciousness of his two-decade role in covering up their cases — and in at least one of them, committing unindicted perjury.
At the time, George Diaz, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, bragged to me that his column opining “Why does this man still have a job?” was “one of the five entries that got me a Top 10 acknowledgment by Associated Press Sports Editors as one of the top columnists in the country.”
I found this a strange boast, insofar as (a) on the front end, Diaz had not been responsible for exposing Wielgus’s administration and lies, and (b) on the back end, in any case, Wielgus would remain in his million-dollar-a-year post until he died in 2017. One of the top ten yapping jackals of a fortnight’s media scrum? For sure. Hands down.
But the reason I bring this up is something else: The Orlando Sentinel was George Gibney’s now-home market, and for years I importuned Diaz to jump into the pool on this story, which looked to be right in his wheelhouse. (He did columns mentioning his adoption of a foster child and he advocated for that population.) Yet nothing ever happened.
In November 2014, Diaz told me he had been out sick for three weeks.
In February 2015, Diaz said he was tied up with coverage of the Daytona 500 motor race, but he promised to put Gibney “on the radar screen ASAP”.
In August 2015, Diaz wrote to me, “I have to be honest, I really have been meaning to get to this, but so slammed…”
June 2017: “I will be in touch with editors today. Trust me the issue is not lack of interest…it’s lack of manpower and time…given all the cutbacks that have faced newspapers through the years it’s simply a matter of Last Man (or Woman) standing.”
April 2018: Diaz was downsized out of his column at the Sentinel.
November 2018: The Orlando Sentinel laid off George Diaz.
Then we have the tale of Outside magazine. In early 2018, in the wake of the FOIA settlement with the government and the then-exploding scandal of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, I was approached by an old college friend who is the No. 2 editor at Outside.
He suggested that I write the definitive George Gibney feature article for his publication. “Let’s go win a National Magazine Award,” he said. This editor told me he had served as a panelist for the award in the past. Again — the solicitation was from him to me, not the other way around.
Over the course of three months, and with the editor’s guidance, I wrote, then rewrote, then re-rewrote, a story pitch. It was a verbal beatdown of little journalistic acuity. But it did have all trappings of a Hollywood scenarist vying for studio funding.
At long last, my friend the No. 2 editor came back with definitive word from his boss, the No. 1 editor: Outside would be thrilled to have me write a few hundred words about this little brouhaha for the magazine’s website. Then, perhaps, somewhere down the road, a print feature when … when … when …
Saying anything further about all this would be redundant and petulant. The Gibney story is not about me.
Irish media counterparts have been a different kettle of fish. They know who George Gibney is, of course, and they episodically obsess over how he was “the one who got away,” while other prominent Irish swimming coaches of his generation went to prison for less (Derry O’Rourke, Ger Doyle), and one for perhaps more (Frank McCann — he murdered his wife and their baby daughter, by burning down their house with them in it, to prevent them from learning that he had raped and impregnated one of his young swimmers).
The Irish media are also hamstrung by the lack of a First Amendment and an accompanying tradition of chilling defamation laws.
And like the public at large, they are often uniquely fatigued and paralysed by the agonizing unspooling of the historical legacies of sexual abuses at many institutions — especially but not only the Catholic Church.
Such conditions also obtain elsewhere (and we can add to this list of limitations such items as shame, inadequate protections for victim-witnesses, and all the other generic impediments to having a healthy conversation about abuse). But in Ireland they are more pronounced by the country’s small size and culture of cronyism.
In 2016, the feisty online site Broadsheet connected the dots of the nexus between Irish cronyism and the 1994 Supreme Court decision that sprang Gibney, in the lengthy timeline article “The Chief Justice, Her Brother, And How George Gibney Got Away,” .
In 2015, Paul Kimmage, a columnist for the Sunday Independent, did a very nice piece about my work, for which I am grateful.
Otherwise, coverage of the FOIA and its fallout has been spotty at best. Perhaps the oddest example was a 2018 takeout by Johnny Watterson, the fine columnist for the Irish Times who had been one of the earliest and best reporters of the 1990s scandals there.
Watterson’s 2,000-plus word piece summed up that “Muchnick exhausted his efforts in the US courts to have [Gibney] deported.” Worse than “burying the lede,” this amounted to turning it on its head, since my case was for public information, and the upshot of its successful release was far from “exhaustion” — it was a timely and purposeful US government reexamination of Gibney.
What Watterson (or his editors) somehow found most important to elucidate at length was not the cautiously optimistic note struck by Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, on the floor of the national assembly.
Nor was it the fact that the FOIA and Judge Breyer’s powerful observation, “We’re not a haven for pedophiles,” had been responsible for unleashing hitherto dormant federal agents for the best chance in many years to get Gibney.
Driving the story, instead, were the somewhat understandably cynical predictions of certain Gibney abuse survivors that the whole affair would add up, yet again, to dashed hopes and failure.
With friends of justice like these, who needs enemies?
Justine McCarthy, author of the seminal book Deep Deception: Ireland’s Swimming Scandals, is now a columnist for the Irish edition of London’s Sunday Times. There, she has advanced the scholarship of my findings incrementally and fitfully.
McCarthy’s most valuable new contribution during my FOIA fight was a story about how Gibney apparently had emigrated to America through a Donnelly diversity lottery visa. This program, leveraged by Irish-American politicians, had set aside disproportionate slots for Irish aspirants in the early 1990s. Soon, the FOIA settlement would confirm the essence of McCarthy’s account.
When I passed through Dublin last July to promote my ebook I didn’t get to meet McCarthy.
I was honored, however, to have an audience at the Oireachtas (legislature) with Maureen O’Sullivan, the Independent assemblywoman from the Dublin Central district who had revived the latest iteration of the Gibney extradition campaign at around the same time I began my investigative series in 2015.
After our lunch meeting, O’Sullivan and I did a joint video interview for the Newstalk network’s Off the Ball. The 12-minute segment is viewable here
(O’Sullivan stood down prior to this weekend’s Irish elections, after 11 years in her seat in the Dáil Éireann. She has had a long and distinguished career in the political circles of the legendary late politician Tony Gregory.)
I also did an interview on Today with Seán O’Rourke on the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ Radio One.
Also on my brief Irish tour, I spent valuable time with Gary O’Toole, the former Irish swimming great, now a prominent orthopedic surgeon, who after learning in 1990 of Gibney’s abuse of swimmer Francis “Chalkie” White, had taken the historically vital and catalyzing step of helping to organize victims and press the then Irish Amateur Swimming Association for reforms and justice.
Lastly, I saw Gibney abuse survivor Loraine Kennedy — who also was the sister of Chalkie White.
I now can reveal the name of this grand lady because she tragically passed away in October, after having been diagnosed with advanced cancer just weeks subsequent to our meeting. Loraine shared with me a new Gibney anecdote that made my skin crawl, and would yours.
BBC/Second Captains flirtation
As I understand the Irish media landscape, the two most popular sports podcasts are Off the Ball and Second Captains. The lion’s share of my own media shots there have been on Off the Ball.
In 2018, I was booked for an interview on a Second Captains segment about Gibney. I was cancelled the day before. The explanation given was that I had been on Off the Ball a couple of days earlier, and such crossover is disqualifying. Whatever.
Later that year, the chief producer for Second Captains, Mark Horgan, emailed me, “I’ll be in touch regarding our series with the BBC next week, which has been in pre-production up until this point. It’s all confidential for now to ensure survivors hear about the plans from us before the general public does. We also need to keep any word of this away from GG.”
When next I heard from Second Captains, in January 2019, it was from another Horgan: Maria Horgan, Mark’s sister. She explained that she had been brought in as a coordinating producer for the BBC-funded Gibney documentary series, which she explained was projected for ten parts.
(Mark and Maria have three other siblings, and two of them are famous. Shane Horgan, a retired rugby star, is a sports commentator for RTÉ, the national television and radio network. Sharon Horgan is the actress, writer, comic, and producer who created HBO’s Divorce and the Amazon streaming hit Catastrophe.)
Before we get to the part where Concussion Inc. and Second Captains were at loggerheads, let me again say that I welcomed any and all higher-octane Gibney coverage. I was skeptical that a podcast, offering production values but constrained by the usual Anglo-Irish legal squeamishness, would do much more than recycle greatest hits.
In 2006, an RTÉ TV investigative magazine show had tracked down Gibney getting into his car in Napa, California, where he then lived, and stuck a microphone in his face. A great “get”, the kind of dramatic content only TV and radio can pull off. But this didn’t advance the Gibney extradition campaign, a tangled web of behind-the-scenes bureaucratic maneuvering.
I also wondered: Did the Horgan production even know about the New York federal grand jury? And if so, did BBC/Second Captains have the will to go there and the analytic chops to explain it?
And in the common conundrum of an independent journalist whose work inevitably gets hogged by and credited to those higher up the media food chain — we freelancers have a term for this: “big-footing” — there was also the consideration that a Gibney indictment or extradition order could drop, with dumb luck, at the very moment of the premiere of Where Is George Gibney?
Thus, when it became apparent that Maria Horgan’s main goal in reaching out to me was to get me to hand over my Rolodex of sources and contacts, I demurred. Maria offered me $500 for an interview for the podcast; I still demurred.
First, $500 was obviously micro-centimes to the dollar in return for my years of sweat equity, including long and costly litigation against the US government. Second, I’ve found that taped interviews, subject to the self-serving edit of the producer, exacerbate rather than mitigate the problem of big-footing.
(Not that anyone is knocking down my door or anything, but I generally prefer live or “live to tape” interviews. I made an exception recently and did a sit-down interview with a crew for VICE TV’s series Dark Side of the Ring, which is about to air an episode about the 1983 death, in the late WWE star wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s Pennsylvania motel room, of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino.)
The Horgans then said they would dedicate one episode of the projected series to my work. Still leery of my lack of editorial control of the product, and suspecting they did not know the content and pace of the feds’ close on Gibney, I gave my definitive ‘no’.
Last spring my sources in Colorado told me that BBC/Second Captains were coming to town. In an amusing side note, a local researcher whom they’d hired asked me for help — evidently not aware that we’d gone our separate ways and I had made clear my disinterest in giving them more free samples.
For my money, one of the threshold factors determining whether the coming podcast series is valuable new journalism, or simply more hot air, involves how Where Is George Gibney? winds up handling an interview that I know they had set up with Lila Adams, a former detective with the police in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. In 2000, Adams (then named Lila Cohen) had written a report on her investigation of Gibney after his new employer there found out about his Irish past and informed on him.
Adams at first agreed to a phone interview with me, too. But she “postponed” it, and ultimately wiggled out of it altogether, once she realized that I would be asking pointed questions about why her report didn’t name the parish sponsoring Gibney’s “International Peru Eye Clinic Foundation,” and why there is no evidence that she even tried to find out.
The US government is serious about getting Gibney — or at least some people there are. The bottom line may be that more voices are needed before the serious forces in the American legal bureaucracy prevail.
BBC/Second Captains’ Where Is George Gibney? may prove to have significant fresh information, or it may prove to be applying, for the umpteenth time, broadcast production values to old information.
Regardless, if it turns out theirs is the voice that nudges deportation/extradition over the top, I’ll tip my hat.
Previously: Irvin Muchnick On Broadsheet