UK declines to talk about swim coach controversy, but KY Open Records Act sheds light

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In our In the Spotlight stories, Herald-Leader journalists bring you continuing coverage of news and events important to our Central Kentucky community. Read more. Story idea? hlcityregion@herald-leader.com.

Nobody at the University of Kentucky wanted to talk about swimming and diving head coach Lars Jorgensen in June 2023 when he suddenly exited the campus amid a swirl of unanswered questions and rumors.

And UK was just as reluctant to discuss Jorgensen 10 months later, on April 12, when two former swimmers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging that the coach sexually harassed and assaulted them and a third woman during their separate times with the swim program.

The former swimmers said Jorgensen created a “toxic, sexually hostile environment” inside UK’s swim program while university officials ignored repeated warnings over the years about his behavior.

They sued UK; Jorgensen; longtime UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart, who was Jorgensen’s superior; and Gary Conelly, who preceded Jorgensen as head swim coach and hired him in 2012 as an assistant.

Clearly, this is an important news story. But getting information about UK’s actions hasn’t been easy.

Jorgensen has declined the Herald-Leader’s requests for an interview. His attorney denied the allegations in the lawsuit and said Jorgensen had consensual dating relationships with his accusers, but he did not harass or assault them.

Barnhart has refused to answer questions about Jorgensen at his public appearances. He declined the Herald-Leader’s recent request for an interview to discuss his decision, in June 2023, to buy Jorgensen out of his contract for $75,000 in exchange for leaving UK quietly.

Conelly, now retired and living in Florida, did not respond to the newspaper’s requests for comment.

Open Records Act

So with UK officials not speaking for the record — although the school has hired a public relations firm to help it deal with the controversy — the Herald-Leader has relied on Kentucky’s Open Records Act to help it reconstruct events.

The open records law, enacted by state legislators in 1976, requires public agencies, such as UK, the state’s flagship public university, to share their documents upon request, with limited exceptions.

So far, we’ve submitted a half-dozen records requests for Jorgensen’s personnel file, including performance evaluations; correspondence about him between university officials; complaints received about him; disciplinary actions taken against him; and communications with his attorneys, among other documents.

The responses have included hundreds of pages, some dating back 12 years.

In a June 1, 2023, memo, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart reminded head swim coach Lars Jorgensen that he has been on suspension for the past month while investigations into his conduct continued.
In a June 1, 2023, memo, UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart reminded head swim coach Lars Jorgensen that he has been on suspension for the past month while investigations into his conduct continued.

Based on UK’s own records, we reported the university heard complaints about Jorgensen’s allegedly predatory behavior toward women starting in 2012, when he was hired; again in 2019, when tips were forwarded by San Jose State University in California, where he’s from; and again in 2023, shortly before his contract buyout.

We reported that in 2019, UK suspended Jorgensen for six days without pay for failing to report sexual harassment charges made against one of the men on his coaching staff, who subsequently left UK.

We reported that UK suspended Jorgensen again, for seven days in April 2023, for self-reported violations of NCAA student-athlete training rules.

And most recently, we reported UK had two ongoing internal investigations into Jorgensen’s behavior — one involving alleged sexual misconduct, the other involving alleged additional NCAA training violations — when Barnhart authorized his $75,000 contract buyout in June 2023 in order to get him off the campus.

A former UK swimmer wrote directly to UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart in mid-2023 to share concerns about Coach Lars Jorgensen.
A former UK swimmer wrote directly to UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart in mid-2023 to share concerns about Coach Lars Jorgensen.

Records indicate that UK investigators were gathering evidence and interviewing swimmers and staffers about Jorgensen right up to the point that Barnhart paid him to leave quietly, with no admission of liability.

A mutual non-disparagement clause in the separation agreement required that neither Jorgensen nor UK speak ill of the other.

“Our reporting of the Lars Jorgensen story wouldn’t happen without the tenacity of investigative reporter John Cheves and our pursuit and review of public documents obtained through the Kentucky Open Records Act,” said Richard Green, executive editor of the Herald-Leader and kentucky.com.

“We believe our readers and Kentucky taxpayers deserve to know all aspects of this controversy,” he added. “We’ll continue to dig into the case, reviewing stacks of public documents to better understand the decisions made by UK’s administrators and look deeply into Jorgensen’s behavior as a UK coach.”

The Herald-Leader’s coverage “is further proof of why Kentucky’s legislature and its governor must not tamper with the 48-year-old Kentucky Records Act,” Green said.

Efforts to potentially weaken it in the state’s last legislative session were chilling, he said. Any amendments to the act could make stories like the Jorgensen investigation potentially impossible to tell.

“We believe a free and open examination of public records, however they may be crafted or shared by public officials, is in Kentucky’s public interest,” Green said. “The Herald-Leader will continue to fight for its preservation.”

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