Politics

Crossing Jordan

Rep. Jim Jordan is trying to silence the former students who have accused him of knowing about sexual abuse.

Rep. Jim Jordan.
Rep. Jim Jordan attends a House joint committee hearing in Washington on July 12.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, student wrestlers at Ohio State University thought their assistant coach, Jim Jordan, was a stand-up guy. Now they’re learning the hard way that he isn’t. A report published on Wednesday by NBC News adds to the case against Jordan: He’s orchestrating a campaign to cover up what he and other coaches knew about sexual abuse at OSU.

The man at the center of Wednesday’s story is Dunyasha Yetts, who wrestled for OSU in 1993 and 1994. A month ago, NBC News asked Yetts about Richard Strauss, the former OSU athletic doctor who’s been accused of sexual harassment and groping by more than 100 former students. Yetts described an incident he had reported to Jordan and Russ Hellickson, who was then the wrestling coach. “I had a thumb injury and went into Strauss’ office, and he started pulling down my wrestling shorts,” Yetts recalled. “I went out and told Russ and Jim what happened. I was not having it. They went in and talked to Strauss.” Yetts told NBC News that he and other students had spoken to Jordan many times about Strauss. “Strauss’s locker was right next to Jordan’s,” Yetts recalled. “Jordan even said he’d kill him if he tried anything with him.”

NBC News published Yetts’ recollections, alongside similar accounts from other former members of the wrestling team, on July 3. Jordan could have accepted their stories. At worst, he could have said that he didn’t remember events the way they did. Instead, he dismissed their accounts as fiction. On July 4, he told reporters: “There’s no truth to the fact that I knew of any abuse. I’ve talked to other coaches. They didn’t know of any abuse. … Nothing that was said about me was true.”

Jordan’s hard line put Hellickson in a bind. Hellickson had already been recorded on video saying that Strauss was too “hands on” with student wrestlers, that Strauss had disturbed the students by showering with them for an hour at a time, and that Hellickson had told school administrators about the problem. Hellickson had also been seen dragging older men out of the shower building for ogling students. But Hellickson felt loyal to Jordan. And now Jordan, who feared that the OSU scandal might derail his candidacy for speaker of the House, needed Hellickson to protect him.

Yetts says that on July 4, Hellickson phoned him about Jordan’s predicament. In the conversation, as recounted by Yetts and described by NBC News, Hellickson “said he was under pressure from Jordan … and from Jordan’s supporters to make ‘a bold statement to defend Jimmy.’ ” According to Yetts, Hellickson drew a distinction between defending Jordan and telling the truth. Hellickson’s words, as reported by Yetts, were: “I will defend Jimmy until I have to put my hand on a Bible and be asked to tell the truth. Then Jimmy will be on his own.” Yetts says he responded by telling Hellickson, “I’m going to contradict you, coach, because I’m telling the truth.”

Yetts says Hellickson encouraged him to issue a statement in Jordan’s defense. Hellickson and other former OSU coaches did issue such a statement—“None of us saw or heard of abuse of OSU wrestlers,” they said of themselves and Jordan—but Yetts stood by his story. So Jordan went after Yetts. In a Fox News interview on July 6, Jordan declared, “What has been said about me is completely false.” He rejected the possibility that anyone on the team had told him even about “something short of abuse.” Former students who claimed otherwise “know what they’re saying is not true,” Jordan asserted. As evidence, he pointed out that Yetts had “spent 18 months in prison for fraud.”

The reference to Yetts’ fraud conviction was true. In the July 3 NBC News report, Yetts had acknowledged it. So Jordan was happy to pit his word against an ex-con’s. What Jordan didn’t tell the Fox News audience was that Yetts had corroboration. Another former student, Shawn Dailey, described the incident just as Yetts did: “Dunyasha comes back and tells Jimmy, ‘Seriously, why do I have to pull down my pants for a thumb injury?’ … Jimmy said something to the extent of, ‘If he tried that with me, I would kill him.’ ”

Now that Yetts has disclosed Hellickson’s phone call, Jordan could accuse Yetts of lying about that too. But again, Yetts has corroboration. Another former wrestler, Mike DiSabato, says Hellickson likewise lobbied him to issue a statement in Jordan’s defense. “He said Jimmy was telling him he had to make a statement supporting him,” DiSabato recalls. As evidence, DiSabato has shown NBC News a text message from Hellickson.

Yetts too has texts from Hellickson. The messages, sent on July 4, don’t explicitly ask Yetts to recant his story that he had told Jordan and Hellickson about Strauss’ behavior. Instead, they tell Yetts to stop talking to the media, and they invite him to work with Hellickson’s contacts on a statement in Jordan’s defense. The exchange, published as screen captures by NBC News, begins with Yetts telling Hellickson: “Everyone knew about Strauss. Kevin & I were the guys scream[ing] about all of Strauss sexual misconducts during his exams.” The message from Yetts goes on, apparently referring to the office of the OSU athletic director: “I told a few people in the AD about Strauss & Larkin hall.” Yetts expresses dismay at Jordan’s denials. “This shouldn’t be about coach Jordan,” he says. “But [I] don’t understand why he would say he didn’t know about Strauss[.] I told him personally.”

Hellickson responds sympathetically. “I’m sorry you got caught up in this media train,” he tells Yetts. “If you think the story got told wrong about Jim, you could probably write a statement for release that tells your story and corrects what you feel bad about. I can put you in contact with someone who would release it. It might make you feel better?” Otherwise, says Hellickson, Yetts should clam up. “Do not talk to any media,” he writes.

Confronted with Hellickson’s text messages and phone calls, Jordan concedes nothing. When NBC News asked Jordan’s office whether Jordan had prompted Hellickson to contact Yetts and DiSabato, Jordan’s spokesman issued a statement that didn’t answer the question: “Seven coaches have said exactly what the Congressman said. Many wrestlers have echoed those comments and support for the Congressman. Why are they all saying the same thing? Because it’s the truth.”

The story told by Jordan and the other seven coaches—that they knew nothing—is already unraveling. One of the seven, Hellickson, is contradicting his own recorded acknowledgments. Another, John Dougherty, seems to have artfully couched what he knew. “I was never approached by any wrestler of the Ohio State Team indicating that they had been sexually abused,” Dougherty declared in a statement released by the Jordan camp on July 9. But in Wednesday’s NBC News report, a former wrestler recalls an incident in which Dougherty “was about to rip off the head of this guy he caught masturbating in the shower. And now he’s saying there was nothing going on.” (Dougherty, when approached by NBC News for a response, replied, “No comment.”)

The former wrestlers who have reported abuse at OSU don’t hate Jordan. They admired him as a coach. Several of them contributed to his campaigns. They’re struggling to understand why he’s attacking them. One speculates that Jordan “got some bad advice up front to deny knowing anything” and then couldn’t bring himself to back down after he was “confronted by wrestlers saying that’s not true.” Another says he supported Jordan politically and was proud to tell people that he knew an honest congressman. “But for him to say he had no idea what was going on, well, he’s not being honest,” says the former wrestler. Live and learn.