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Bernie Fine taking ESPN lawsuit to federal court

Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The long case of former Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine vs. ESPN will now go to federal court.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine's defamation lawsuit against ESPN is being moved to federal court, according to court papers.

In a filing in state Supreme Court last week, Fine also dropped legal action against co-defendants named in the original summons filed in November, which included reporter Mark Schwarz, producer Arthur Berko, the Walt Disney Co. and the Hearst Corp. ESPN, Inc. will be the sole defendant.

Fine is suing for defamation stemming from broadcasts aired by ESPN that reported claims by two former ball boys that Fine had molested them more than two decades ago. Fine was fired in November 2011, days after the broadcasts aired.

The 67-year-old Fine was never charged and has maintained his innocence.

ESPN had no comment when contacted Tuesday night by The Associated Press.

After a probe spanning nearly a year, federal authorities in November dropped their investigation into one of the sexual abuse claims against Fine, saying there was not enough evidence to support a claim that Fine had molested a boy in a Pittsburgh hotel room in 2002.

The investigation began in the immediate aftermath of the Penn State University scandal. Two former Syracuse ball boys, Bobby Davis and stepbrother Michael Lang, came forward and accused Fine of fondling them when they were teens. Davis said the sexual contact continued for years.

But the claims by Davis and Lang had happened too long ago to be prosecuted. Ten days later, though, a third man, 23-year-old Zachary Tomaselli, of Lewiston, Maine, went public with an accusation that Fine had molested him in 2002 in a hotel room when the team played in Pittsburgh. The same day, ESPN aired an audiotape in which Fine's wife, Laurie Fine, apparently acknowledged to Davis she knew about the molestation he alleged.

Fine was fired Nov. 27, 2011, after Tomaselli came forward and the federal government began investigating Tomaselli's claim, the only one that fell within the statute of limitations.

Tomaselli was accused of sexually abusing a boy at a camp in 2010 and his father had said his son was lying about Fine. Tomaselli, who eventually was convicted of sexual abuse and sentenced to three years and three months in prison, insisted he was telling the truth.

Before he went to jail, Tomaselli took the media on a wild spin, repeatedly lying in a bid, he said, to keep his name in print.

Fine's wife, Laurie, also sued ESPN, alleging defamation and claiming the network knew that Davis was lying and ruined her life. Part of that suit has already been dismissed by a federal court judge.

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