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Defamation trial: Witnesses defend Furlong, call journalist aggressive

A former head coach of Canada’s men’s basketball team took the stand yesterday in defence of John Furlong at the trial at which the former Vancouver Olympic CEO is being sued for defamation.
John Furlong was contacted by the former coach of the national basketball team because of his experiences with freelance journalist Laura Robinson.

A former head coach of Canada’s men’s basketball team took the stand yesterday in defence of John Furlong at the trial at which the former Vancouver Olympic CEO is being sued for defamation.

Ken Shields said he received a phone call from freelance journalist Laura Robinson, who filed the defamation suit against Furlong, in 1994 during the world championships in Germany.

“It was a very aggressive, I would say, caustic call accusing me of racial bias,” Shields said.

“It was just a horrendous experience. I didn’t feel that she was open to anything I said.”

Shields told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Wedge that Robinson accused him of racism in his selection of national team members.

He said he got a second call from Robinson after the world championships and says she alleged that he had basically selected white players over black players.

Shields said he invited Robinson to contact his staff and players and denied the allegations.

“It’s a principle that I hold very dear to me — equality among races.”

Shields said that when Robinson published a story alleging racism in the selection process for the Globe and Mail newspaper, he was “devastated” and took steps to sue her and the paper.

“For those allegations to be levelled against anyone was absolutely sickening.”

Eventually the case settled before going to court and an independent investigation into the allegations cleared him of any wrongdoing, he said.

When he heard that Robinson had published a story in the Georgia Straight newspaper alleging that Furlong had physically abused former students more than 40 years ago, he contacted Furlong and said he was prepared to testify on his behalf.

He said he couldn’t relate to how devastating the charges were against Furlong since they were so much more serious than his charges, but wanted to empathize with him.

Bryan Baynham, Robinson’s lawyer, pointed out that part of the article dealt with an allegation of systemic racism in the selection process.

But Shields said that as head coach, he was involved in the final selection of players and “that’s pretty personal, it’s not systemic.”

A second witness called by Furlong also defended the Olympic CEO.

Rusty Goepel, former chair of the nominating and governance committee of VANOC, said he got a phone call from Laura Robinson asking him about when Furlong had come to Canada from Ireland and outlining the allegations, which he said he didn’t believe.

He described Robinson as being “very aggressive” and “extremely dramatic.”

“This was like an ambush.”

Goepel said he contacted Furlong, who told him the allegations were “completely and totally false.”

Earlier on Tuesday, while under cross examination from Baynham, Furlong angrily accused him of sullying the reputation of his now-deceased wife.

Baynham had challenged a story that Furlong gave in his direct examination about his wife on the day he learned that Robinson had published the abuse allegations in the Straight.

Furlong had testified that his wife Deborah, who died in a car accident in Ireland in 2013, was so distraught that she had left their home on Sept. 27, 2012 and scooped up as many copies of the freely-distributed Georgia Straight newspaper that carried the article as she could.

When she came home with their truck, piled to the ceiling with copies of the Straight, she apologized to Furlong for what she’d done, Furlong testified.

Referring to testimony that Furlong had given in a pre-trial examination for discovery, Baynham said what really happened was that his wife had gone out and picked up a single copy and returned to their Olympic Village apartment.

“How dare you sully her reputation and her life like that,” said Furlong. “I gave you exactly what she did. She was totally distraught. And by the way, she told the story to many people.”

Baynham repeated to Furlong that his wife had just walked outside and got a paper and brought it back about 7 a.m. on the day in question.

“It’s outrageous for you to say that,” said Furlong. “You’re sullying her reputation. I told you what she did. She told many people she did it. My children are here, she told them she did it.”

Furlong said the only thing his wife told him was that she was worried that he would be disappointed in what she did.

“I told her I’m sure I will not be disappointed.”

Baynham also questioned Furlong about an allegation he made in a press conference statement that same day that someone had tried to extort him to make the story go away.

He pointed out that a Global News report stated that there was a suggestion that it was Robinson who committed the extortion.

Citing emails filed as court exhibits, Baynham also suggested that the RCMP also thought that Furlong had believed Robinson was involved in the alleged extortion.

“At no time was it ever presented to anybody that this was at the hands of Laura Robinson,” said Furlong.

“I didn’t think that. If that was true, I wasn’t aware of it. Never suggested it, haven’t suggested it to this minute. Not once.”

Baynham pointed to a statement Furlong released several days after the news conference and suggested Furlong had an opportunity to set the record straight but did not do so.

“I didn’t do it because I never thought it was an issue. Had someone asked me, I would have cleaned it up. No one asked me.”

Furlong initially filed his own defamation suit against Robinson, who launched a countersuit. After three civil lawsuits alleging he’d sexually abused students were dismissed, Furlong dropped his lawsuit. He has repeatedly denied ever physically or sexually abusing students at a Catholic school in Burns Lake where he was a volunteer teacher. An RCMP investigation into a sex abuse allegation against Furlong resulted in no charges being laid.