Reputed Mobster Accused in Olympic Skating Fix Says He's Innocent

A reputed Russian mobster charged with fixing two figure skating events in the worst judging scandal in Olympics history insists he is innocent and will fight extradition to the United States, his lawyer says.

In Moscow, the Russian figure skating pair who won the Olympic gold medal allegedly because of the mobster's intercession said they would sue U.S. television networks for using pictures of them in their coverage of the scandal. Anton Sikharulidze and Yelena Berezhnaya did not say which networks they planned to sue or where their suit would be filed.

"I saw our pictures appearing on the screen while they were talking about some kind of the Russian mafia," Sikharulidze said in remarks aired on Russian television Friday. "Together with people who are working with us, we are preparing to sue the television channels."

The Russians narrowly beat Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier in the pairs skating at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, but French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne said the next day that she had been pressured to vote for the Russians, who slipped during their routine.

Le Gougne later recanted but still was suspended, as was Didier Gailhaguet, the head of the French skating federation, and a duplicate set of gold medals were awarded to the Canadians.

In the followup to the scandal, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, 53, was arrested Wednesday by Italian police on U.S. charges of conspiring to buy off Olympic judges. Tokhtakhounov, an Uzbek-born Russian citizen, is accused of scheming to persuade a French judge to vote for the Russian skaters and a Russian judge to vote in turn for the French ice dancing team. Both teams won gold.

Italian police said Tokhtakhounov may have been in contact with at least six Olympic judges in his alleged plot to fix medals at the games.

On Friday, Tokhtakhounov's lawyer, Luca Saldarelli, accompanied by a Russian interpreter, entered Venice's Santa Maria Maggiore prison for his first meeting with his client.

Tokhtakhounov was expected to plead innocent to all charges and fight extradition, Saldarelli said Thursday. "According to what his relatives told me, he will deny any wrongdoing," he said.

On Thursday, an Italian organized-crime unit released transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations between Tokhtakhounov and unnamed coconspirators during the games.

"We have recorded a conversation in which the suspect indicates that six judges may have been involved," police Col. Giovanni Mainolfi said. "However, we have no specific evidence against these judges at this time."

He did not identify the judges. Nine judges vote on each of the figure skating events.

U.S. prosecutors say an unidentified "coconspirator" connected with the Russian Skating Federation did the legwork after being contacted by Tokhtakhounov. In exchange for fixing the events, U.S. prosecutors say, the reputed mobster wanted a visa to return to France, where he once lived.

The U.S. Olympic Committee called Thursday for "aggressive action" in a letter to International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.

"Any connection between organized crime and the Olympic Games must be dealt with in the strongest possible manner, using all available resources and means," the U.S. committee said.

Le Gougne, the French skating judge, has denied having any contact with Tokhtakhounov.

A week after the pairs competition, France's Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won gold in the ice dancing. However, the Russian judge voted for the second-place Russians -- indicating that the scheme wasn't carried out the way prosecutors believe it was planned.

Italian police said Tokhtakhounov had a phone conversation with a French man, identified on the tape as "Chevalier," after the Russians won gold in pairs.

"Everything will go well now because the French, with their vote, have made them champions," Chevalier said, according to the transcript. "It happened, it happened. Even if the Canadians are 10 times better, the French with their vote have given them first place."

In Moscow, Russian Olympic Committee spokesman Gennady Shvets told The Associated Press that its officials and lawyers met Friday to work out a strategy for supporting the skaters' lawsuits against U.S. television networks. "These lawsuits could make them millionaires," he said.

Shvets derided the U.S. charges against Tokhtakhounov, saying they were "absolutely stupid" and "funny as a cartoon."