Featured Commentary: Defining Priorities - USA Swimming's Critical Choice

USA Swimming is facing a defining moment. Chuck Baechler, an individual with a troubling past, has been discovered operating openly but undetected in USA Swimming's coaching ranks. Baechler pled guilty to charges stemming from sex with a seemingly unwilling partner. This criminal conviction apparently was not turned up by USA Swimming's vaunted background checks. USA Swimming now must choose between enforcement of their rules or allowing this coach to continue in a position of authority over vulnerable children. With a complaint imminent, we will soon know if USA Swimming's priority is the children, the coaches, or a self-serving evasion of all responsibility.

Chuck Baechler, the current coach at Watertown Area Swim Club, has a past. For the record, his misdeeds are not something he attempts to hide. Baechler is very clear about the legal aspects of his actions in his communications with Concussion Inc. author and USA Swimming watchdog Irv Muchnick. Chuck Baechler, a former Washington district judge, had sex with a woman who appeared as a defendant in his court. She apparently did not consent or otherwise felt coerced into the unwanted act. A health professional she confided in brought this information to the authorities.

According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review (10/15/1998):

In court documents, [Newport Police Chief Bill] Clark stated he thought he was dealing with a stalking case when he interviewed the woman, but she hesitantly volunteered that Baechler had sexual intercourse with her against her will. She said she hadn't told her counselor about that because she was recently separated from her husband and hoped for a reconciliation, the court documents say.

The woman, who was being counseled for an addiction to prescription drugs, said she appeared before Baechler Aug. 25 [1998] on charges that she drove drunk and failed to stop after hitting an unoccupied vehicle. She said Baechler called her into his chambers to give her some legal papers pertaining to her separation from her husband and children.

Baechler said he wanted to spare her embarrassment and offered to help her find a place to live, the woman told authorities. She said he made several calls and told her he was unable to find a place for her to stay, but offered to let her stay at his cabin at Diamond Lake.

The woman said Baechler drove her to his cabin after getting off work, and reassured her that he was "a good guy" when she told him she was uneasy about going to a strange place with a man she didn't know.

At the cabin, she told Clark, Baechler repeatedly told her she was beautiful and began touching and trying to kiss her. She said she objected, but he assured her 'everything would be OK" and led her to his bedroom.

Baechler undressed her, she alleged, although she repeatedly objected, pulled away and tried to tug her clothing back on. Clark stated in an affidavit that the woman told him she was frightened of Baechler and eventually allowed him to have sex with her. Afterward, she said he dropped her off at a convenience store in Newport.

On Oct.1, after the woman had rented an apartment in Newport, she said Baechler came to her home. Clark said she told him she feared she "had done something wrong," so she let Baechler in and he began touching her and making sexual advances.

Baechler left when the woman told him she had to go to a meeting at her children's school, Clark stated. But he said the woman told him Baechler returned at 1:40 a.m. and knocked on her door and banged on her window for 15 minutes. She said she watched him get into a car, but he returned to knock on her door and window about every half-hour for five hours.

Afterward, she said she found a note of apology on her door, signed "C.B."

Like Clark, sheriff's Deputy Alan Botzheim said in a court document that he found the woman's account consistent and credible. In a statement used to obtain a warrant to search Baechler's cabin for evidence of third-degree rape and criminal stalking, Botzheim said the woman was able to find the cabin and accurately describe its interior.

Chuck Baechler's personal record is littered with tax delinquencies and reports, official and otherwise, allude to repeated failures in filing paperwork or completing required duties.

According to the Spokesman-Review:

Despite that, prosecuting and defense attorneys alike continued to regard Baechler as a talented jurist. He blamed his failure to get things done on attention deficit disorder, and said he sought counseling and began taking the prescription drug Ritalin to overcome the problem.

Excuses, excuses.

The ultimate outcome of Baechler's criminal case reflects both his intellectual/legal prowess and an apparent penchant for manipulation. Chuck Baechler stepped down as a judge in an agreement that also terminated the investigation into his status as a legal professional. The criminal case was adeptly ended with a plea bargain and guilty plea (technically an Alford plea, "guilty with an asterisk": see below) to an assault charge that would just keep Baechler off of the national sex offender roster. The bright but seemingly troubled judge had maneuvered to avoid national shame while preserving hope of a future legal career.

(An Alford plea is a guilty plea with a side comment of "...but I really didn't do it." Those choosing to enter an Alford guilty plea are essentially admitting that a judge or jury would find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The hope is that a plea bargain or lighter sentence can be obtained as a result of the "not guilty" guilty plea. In Baechler's case this meant avoiding potential jail time. He also avoided having a picture on the internet labeled "sex offender" being placed alphabetically between Charles Arabas and Will Colebank.)

USA Swimming's rule regarding Chuck Baechler's situation is clear:

304.3.6 Conviction of, imposition of a deferred sentence for, or any plea of guilty or no contest at any time, past or present, or the existence of any pending charges, for (i) any felony, (ii) any offense involving use, possession, distribution or intent to distribute illegal drugs or substances, (iii) any crime involving sexual misconduct, or (iv) any criminal offense against a minor.

This rule is often referenced as the reason for a coach's appearance on the Banned List. Many of the coaches already banned committed only misdemeanor offenses, like those admitted to by Chuck Baechler's (Alford) guilty plea.

No one can reasonably assert that Baechler's offense did not involve sexual misconduct. His plea apparently narrowly avoided a rape trial and at best, his victim felt that the sex was coerced. The correspondence with Irv Muchnick unfortunately suggests that more excuses will be offered in Baechler's hope that his case will be casually swept aside.

According to Baechler himself, the assault sentence was expunged. This does not mean that people must pretend that Baechler's actions never occurred. It means that Chuck Baechler's criminal record was considered clean following probation. Baechler's behavior and guilty plea do not simply evaporate into a false and rosy new reality.

As if foretelling the failure of the "disappearing crime" dodge, Baechler stated that the statute he pled guilty to doesn't include sex. Splitting hairs over the absence of the word sex in a legal heading (aside from invalidating his own expunged defense) is beside the point given USA Swimming's clear wording. "Any crime involving sexual misconduct" reasonably includes allegations of rape or coerced sex. Baechler's (Alford) guilty plea admits a jury would likely have convicted him of that higher offense if the charges were brought to trial.

While USA Swimming's laughable background checks and non-binding employment guidelines are the primary concern, the responsibility of individual teams is also an issue in this case. In his email to Irv Muchnick, Chuck Baechler states that he made his criminal history clear to two teams that employed him. Baechler didn't elaborate but any disclosure, complete or partial, should have triggered investigation by the directors of Baechler's known employers, Mitchell Aquatic Club (SD) and Watertown Area Swim Club (SD). Baechler was also briefly considered or employed at the Woodmoor Waves (Monument, CO) before discovery of his past terminated the relationship. Compliance with USA Swimming's rules implicitly required that all three of these teams report Chuck Baechler to the NGB to avoid potential punishment for aiding and abetting Code of Conduct violators under Article 304.2.

A frequent pattern among sexual predators is the use of authority or trust to initiate their advances. It has also been said that 90% of child sexual abuse happens at the hands of trusted adults. While there is no indication, past or present, that Chuck Baechler has ever done anything wrong with children (and no such claim is being made!), concern over similar history among abusers is the focus for USA Swimming's sex/drug/child offense rule.

USA Swimming is correct in stating that a person's past action may be an indicator of future behavior. This rule successfully highlights patterns or weaknesses we will continue to see from offenders. As such, denying membership to those who have violated the Code of Conduct "at any time, past or present" is absolutely the right thing to do. Case after case has validated the right of organizations to limit their membership based on the criteria of their choosing. What we shall wait to see, as the guardians of young swimmers' safety and innocence, is whether USA Swimming will enforce the rules they so highly tout or return to business as usual. See no evil. Hear no evil. Cut me a $750,000 paycheck.

This particular case will tell us quite a bit about USA Swimming's priorities. If USA Swimming chooses to ban Chuck Baechler they will be making a statement that their rules are important and the safety of children is the priority. If USA Swimming sides with Chuck Baechler and retains him as a USA Swimming member, Wielgus & Co. will be clearly indicating that the self-interest of a coach supersedes the written rules and must be honored even if that means potentially placing children at risk. One of those priorities, child safety or adult membership, has to be placed as paramount.

There is a third possibility. USA Swimming may abrogate their responsibility and do nothing in hopes that, for lack of interest, another scandal will simply fade away. In reality, citing Baechler's expunged criminal record and opting not to respond would be total breach of corporate responsibility. USA Swimming has a Duty of Care to their underage members and a Duty of Obedience to their own rules. A "Baechler Blank Out" would be a tacit admission that USA Swimming functions only to support the unjustified compensation of Chuck Wielgus and others while bolstering their false sense of child-endangering pride.

Featured Video

Inside USA Swimming
as aired on ABC's 20/20

Swimming Exposed recommends

Deep Deception: Ireland's Swimming Scandals
by Justine McCarthy