Portland Trail Blazers’ rape investigation came together quickly, didn’t contact accuser
Editor’s Note: This story contains detailed descriptions of rape allegations.
In a most unusual introduction of a head coach to his new city and fans, the Portland Trail Blazers opened their June 29 news conference for Chauncey Billups by announcing they had completed their own investigation into decades-old rape allegations against him.
President of basketball operations Neil Olshey assured a crowd of reporters in Portland the team had corroborated Billups’ recollection that “nothing nonconsensual” happened during the alleged November 1997 incident between Billups and his accuser, who civil court filings identify under the pseudonym, Jane Doe.
“We did everything in our power to vet that incident,” Olshey said.
The Blazers have not released any details of the team’s inquiry. The team refused to disclose who conducted the research, when it was completed and who the team’s hired investigator spoke to — or whether that investigator interviewed anyone at all. Olshey declined to answer reporters’ questions about the investigation, saying it was “proprietary.”
“So you’re just going to have to take our word that we hired an experienced firm that ran an investigation that gave us the results we’ve already discussed,” Olshey told reporters.
The Trail Blazers, an Oregon institution worth an estimated $1.9 billion, have aligned their brand with community service and social justice awareness. The team deemed its review sufficient in the face of intense fan scrutiny after news reports surfaced indicating the coaching search involved multiple men with alleged or proven crimes against women in their past.
OPB attempted to retrace the team’s investigation into Billups. While the events of that November 1997 night remain in dispute, OPB found a number of basic steps the Trail Blazers do not appear to have taken in their review. The team declined to answer any of OPB’s questions about the thoroughness and intent of its investigation.
The team’s review did not obtain information directly from several primary sources, including the accuser.
“It’s news to us that they conducted an investigation,” said Margaret A. Burnham, attorney for Jane Doe.
Burnham, a law professor and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern School of Law in Boston, represented Doe in the 1998 federal civil lawsuit against Billups and three other men, two of whom were teammates. Burnham said she remains Doe’s attorney 23 years later and that “we stand by the allegations.”
A criminal rape investigation never resulted in charges against Billups or the other men. A civil case filed in federal court in Massachusetts by Doe offers some specifics of the allegations she made, however.
Doe’s complaint alleges on Nov. 9, 1997, three men, including Billups, raped her at the house of Billups’ Boston Celtics teammate Antoine Walker. In her lawsuit, Doe states a medical examination done the next day revealed “injuries to [Doe’s] throat, cervix and rectum.” In his answer to Doe’s complaint filed with the court nearly one year later, Billups said he engaged in consensual oral sex with Doe, and that he drove Doe not to Walker’s house but to teammate Ron Mercer’s.
Retracing the 1997 case involves many roadblocks. One of Doe’s attorneys, a Harvard University law professor, has Alzheimer’s disease. One of the defendants’ attorneys on the case is dead. Another said he hasn’t spoken to Billups in years and also said he wasn’t contacted as part of any investigation by the Trail Blazers.
“I’m the only lawyer standing in this case,” said Burnham, who was recently nominated by President Joe Biden to the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board, which aims to help solve murders, such as lynchings and other racially motivated killings, from the Civil Rights Era.
Burnham refused to discuss Doe’s allegations against Billups and the other players and said neither she nor her client was interested in being drawn into the case again.
“There is a truth issue here we care about,” Burnham said. “But beyond that, I hope the people of Oregon and Portland will figure it all out.”
The Blazers’ investigation also did not contact the current district attorney in Middlesex County, where the alleged rape took place, or Thomas Reilly, the former district attorney who led the investigation into the 1997 allegation and declined to press criminal charges.
Reilly, who served as Massachusetts attorney general from 1999 to 2007, told OPB in an email that he believes Billups.
“Mr. Billups has consistently said that any acts between him and the woman involved were consensual,” Reilly said via email. “I believe he is telling the truth because the evidence obtained during the course of a very thorough investigation backed him up … no doubt about it.”
Reilly declined to go into any detail about the case or to describe the evidence that led him to the conclusion that Billups did not rape Jane Doe in November 1997.
“You and your colleague can continue to work this story until the cows come home but you will not be able to change the bottom line … .” Reilly said in an email. “Mr. Billups is telling the truth about the incident you refer to. You called me and I’ve tried to help you but enough is enough … case closed.”
Billups, a former NBA champion, spent most of his vaunted career without the 1997 allegation at the forefront.
When the Blazers announced their coaching search in early June, Billups was one of two candidates publicly endorsed by star point guard Damian Lillard, who later said he hadn’t been aware of the allegation. The other was Jason Kidd, who previously pleaded guilty to hitting his ex-wife. Kidd withdrew his name early in the Blazers’ search and took a head coach position with the Dallas Mavericks.
Olshey had already hired Billups once, signing him as a player in 2011 when Olshey was general manager for the Los Angeles Clippers.
After news leaked that Billups was a top choice for the Blazers position, the team received blowback from fans over the allegation, and over the news that the Blazers had passed over Becky Hammon, another finalist with more coaching experience. Billups is in his first year as an assistant coach with the Clippers. Hammon, a former WNBA player, has been a San Antonio Spurs assistant coach for the past eight years under Gregg Popovich, who is widely considered one of the top coaches in NBA history. Hammon would have become the NBA’s first female head coach.
The Blazers’ investigation into the 1997 rape allegations appears to have taken place in a matter of days. Olshey told reporters the team’s investigation took place after the Blazers offered Billups the position. According to reporting from ESPN and The Athletic, the Blazers were conducting final interviews the week of June 21. On June 27, the team announced it had scheduled an introductory press conference for a new head coach, without naming Billups. Olshey and Billups spoke to reporters on June 29.
The day after the press conference, The Athletic reported through an unnamed source that the Blazers had commissioned a former FBI investigator to retrace the case, which, according to the report, involved re-interviewing witnesses and watching tapes of past interviews.
The police department in Waltham, Massachusetts, the Boston suburb where the alleged rape occurred, said it had received just one recent inquiry regarding Billups. That request came from Dave Hallman, who runs the Oregon-based security firm Alder Group.
Hallman didn’t respond to calls and written questions from OPB.
According to his website, Hallman is a former FBI agent whose firm specializes in due diligence backgrounding, professional sports risk management and pre-draft backgrounding for professional sports teams.
The Blazers did not respond to a request for comment, making it unclear what interview tapes the investigator may have reviewed, or how they would have obtained them.
Massachusetts law prohibits police from releasing any information about reports of sexual assault or domestic violence, meaning any tapes or police reports would have been difficult for an independent investigator to procure.
The Waltham Police Department said it received Hallman’s request for information about Billups on June 24.
“No information was released by our department,” Capt. Steven R. Champeon of the Waltham Police Department said via email.
News of Billups’ hiring broke the next day.
The Blazers and Vulcan Inc., the company that owns the team, declined multiple requests to comment on OPB’s findings.
“While we recognize additional questions and concerns have been expressed, we believe Chauncey is a person of incredible character and we are confident in our decision to hire him and believe he is the right person to lead our team,” Ashley Clinkscale, the Blazers’ senior vice president for communications, community and diversity, said in an emailed response. “We took the allegations very seriously by commissioning a thorough and independent investigation into the incident in 1997, in addition to our normal course of vetting employees, players, and leadership.”
There is no legal reason the Trail Blazers could not release findings of their investigation into Billups or details on how it was done, said Elizabeth Tippett, professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. Tippett, a former Silicon Valley employment lawyer who now studies and teaches employment law, published a paper in 2018 on the legal implications of the #MeToo movement.
She said the fact that the accuser’s attorney wasn’t contacted indicates to her the team’s inquiry was closer to a reference check than a full investigation.
“Maybe they didn’t want to add more fuel to the intrigue. But by not disclosing it, they might make it seem like more than it is,” Tippett said. “The reason why you’re saying you hired an independent investigator is because you made the reasonable inference, the public might not trust you. And then now you’re saying, just trust us.”
Tippett said the Blazers’ handling of the coaching search and announcement follows a pattern she’s seen in the #MeToo era.
“The #MeToo related costs are something businesses are just willing to eat,” Tippett said. “You’re delivering a message to the public: You don’t really care that much about these allegations or at least you don’t care about them as much as you care about other things that matter more.”
As part of reviewing the Blazers’ investigation efforts, OPB obtained archived civil court records from Boston’s federal courthouse that detail the 1998 civil lawsuit filed by Doe. Decades later, they provide what appear to be the only publicly available first-hand accounts of the allegations and Billups’ response at the time.
In an amended complaint filed in May 1998, Doe acknowledges she was “unconscious for part of the night and therefore cannot now fully recall all of the events that occurred on the night of the assault.”
The night began at a Boston comedy club, where Doe met up with Walker and his roommate. Also in attendance were Walker’s Celtics teammates, Billups and Mercer.
Doe’s complaint alleges Billups drove her to Walker’s luxury condo in Waltham, where she was escorted into a bedroom and raped by three men.
One of the men she identified as Walker’s roommate. But for the other two, Doe “could not see these men’s faces because they were standing above her and she could not lift her head from the bed,” Doe’s amended civil complaint states. “On information and belief, these two other men were Billups and Mercer, the men with whom she had come to Waltham that evening.”
In his lawyers’ response, Billups stated he was not at Walker’s home when Doe says she was assaulted, according to a March 1999 court document filed in the case. Records show Billups denied having intercourse with Doe and denied that an assault occurred.
“Billups admits that on an evening in November 1997, plaintiff initiated and consented to oral sex with him, in an automobile,” the court filing from Billups states. “Billups further admits that he has described plaintiff’s actions to the Waltham Police Department and to the Office of the District Attorney for Middlesex County. Billups states that he has never had any other contact, sexual or otherwise, with plaintiff.”
As part of his reply to the allegations in the same 1999 court document, Billups countered with claims that Doe was aware of endorsement contracts he was negotiating and was making false and defamatory statements to “pressure Billups to contribute to a monetary payment to plaintiff in exchange for plaintiff dismissing her non-meritorious claims against Billups.” Weeks later, Doe’s attorney filed a response denying these claims.
Billups and Mercer settled the civil lawsuit, according to a December 1999 court filing. The terms of the settlement are not public.
OPB’s attempts to reach Mercer, Walker and his roommate were not successful. The Trail Blazers declined to make Billups available for an interview for this story. Attempts to reach him by phone were unsuccessful.
Billups did open his comments during the introductory June 29 news conference by addressing the 1997 allegation.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how every decision that we make can have a profound impact on a person’s life,” Billups said. “I learned at a very young age as a player, not only a player, but a young man, a young adult that every decision, every decision has consequences. And that’s led to some really, really healthy, but tough conversations that I’ve had to have with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time in 1997, and my daughters, about what actually happened.”
Later in the news conference, a reporter asked Billups to expand on his opening comments.
“You said the 1997 incident shaped you in unbelievable ways,” said Jason Quick, a reporter for The Athletic. “Can you maybe elaborate on that and how it helped shape you?”
As the question was asked, Olshey took a long swig from a plastic water bottle and shot a look off-camera in the direction of Clinkscale, the team’s communications manager, who was moderating the event.
Billups nodded toward Quick and opened his mouth as if about to answer.
Clinkscale cut him off.
“Jason, we appreciate your question. We’ve addressed this,” she said. “It’s been asked and answered, so, happy to move on to the next question here.”
The team has not discussed the allegation, or its investigation, since the press conference.
Steve Brown and Todd Wallack of WBUR contributed reporting from Boston.
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