Woman faces federal extortion charges

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- An equipment manager's estranged wife was charged with trying to extort Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino, at first demanding cars and tuition for her children, then later asking for $10 million, according to a federal complaint filed Friday.

Karen Cunagin Sypher, who also is accused of lying to the FBI in the case, did not enter a plea at a court appearance Friday and was released on her own recognizance.

Sypher's husband, Tim Sypher, brought Pitino a written list of demands including tuition, two cars of her choice, paying off her house and $3,000 per month, according to the complaint. The demands later escalated to $10 million, the complaint said.

What sort of information Sypher may have been trying to use to extort the successful coach was not included in the complaint, which only said Pitino believed it was related to an unspecified encounter with the woman in 2003. Pitino took over Louisville's basketball program in 2001.

The 56-year-old coach first brought up the extortion allegations last week, when he said he had reported them to the FBI last month. Since then, Karen Sypher has given some media interviews, mostly saying she's just defending herself. One station that did an extensive interview said it chose not to air her allegations because they could not be confirmed.

Tim Sypher, a longtime aide to Pitino, voiced his support for his boss in a statement last week, and divorce papers for the couple has been filed in recent weeks.

Pitino's attorney, Steve Pence, released a statement and said he has directed the coach to have no further comment on the case.

"While Coach Pitino takes no comfort in this prosecution and remains astonished by these events, it marks a turning point that allows him to focus with a clear mind once again on his family and his team," said Pence.

Outside the courthouse, Sypher's attorney, Thomas Clay, declined to predict what might happen in the case.

"The criminal complaint clearly reflects other people were involved in this," Clay said. "Whether they will be charged, I don't know."

Clay declined to comment on Sypher's allegation against Pitino. In court, she answered only "yes, sir" to questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Dave Whalin, and she would not comment later.

According to the criminal complaint written by FBI Special Agent Steven Wight, Pitino received two voicemail messages from a man who did not identify himself on Feb. 26 and a third call on Feb. 28. Pitino told Wight the first two concerned personal allegations that were "criminal in nature" and could harm the coach's reputation, while the third was a threat to make the allegations public in two weeks.

Wight notes in the complaint that the truth about the allegations against Pitino is "suspect" and were left out of the criminal complaint.

Pitino told Wight he met with the Syphers after the first two calls and asked what she wanted and Karen Sypher talked about a house, cars and cash. Pitino told Wight that he played the voicemail for her and she denied knowing about the calls.

Kenyon Meyer, Tim Sypher's attorney, said his client is not being targeted in the criminal investigation and is cooperating.

"This whole series of events has just been devastating," Meyer said.

Wight said Karen Sypher hired an attorney on March 22 and the attorney mailed a letter to Pitino repeating the allegations made in the voicemail, but in greater detail. In the letter, Sypher also accused Pitino of orchestrating the threatening calls, Wight said. The attorney filed a divorce petition on behalf of her and made demands of Pitino, including one for $10 million, Wight said. An affidavit containing the allegations against Pitino and attached to the petition has been sealed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kuhn asked Whalin to bar Karen Sypher from hurting Pitino's reputation while on bond, and Clay said his client agreed not discuss the coach in public.

Pitino signed a three-year contract extension with the Cardinals in May 2007 that could keep him at the school through 2013. The deal pays him an annual salary of $2.5 million a year if he stays until the end of the contract. He'll receive loyalty bonuses of $3.6 million in 2010 and 2013 if he remains with the school.

Kuhn said a federal grand jury is scheduled to meet May 11-12 and could hear the case.

The FBI interviewed Sypher earlier this month about the calls and said she failed a polygraph test to her during the second interview. She then gave false information about the caller's identity, leading to charges of lying to the FBI, Wight said.

Agents also interviewed a man who admitted making the calls to Pitino.

The man, who was not identified in the complaint, told Wight that Karen Sypher talked about getting $200,000 to $400,000. The man said Karen Sypher asked him to make the calls "during a critical period in the basketball season to increase the pressure" on Pitino, Wight said.