WWE cofounder Linda McMahon, who runs Trump's biggest super PAC, once hired a suspected child molester on the condition that he 'stop chasing after kids.' He didn't.

David Bixenspan
·30 min read
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Mel Phillips, left, with a group of teens at the 1975 Wrestling Fans International Association convention in Boston Photo obtained by Insider; Yuqing Liu/Business Insider
    • Linda McMahon, the former Trump administration official who now runs President Donald Trump's biggest super PAC, presided over a child-sexual-abuse scandal in the 1990s, an Insider investigation has found.

    • In 1992, WWE, the wrestling behemoth that McMahon cofounded with her husband, Vince, faced allegations that a ring announcer sexually abused the teen boys who helped him set up for matches.

    • Several boys said the announcer, Mel Phillips, repeatedly rubbed their feet against his crotch in incidents going back to 1986.

    • Vince McMahon told a reporter that both he and Linda McMahon suspected Phillips of taking a "peculiar and unnatural" interest in children for years before they finally fired him, according to testimony in court records.

    • An attorney for WWE told Insider that the accusations against Phillips were about a "foot fetish" and did not include "anything approximating conventional forms of sexual abuse such as rape, sodomy, etc." He described claims that the McMahons knew about the accusations while continuing to work with Phillips as "outlandish" and "classic libel."

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As President Donald Trump's presidential campaign lurches toward the finish line, many of his supporters have seized on an increasingly deranged and unsupported set of accusations and tropes that paint Joe Biden and the Democratic Party as tolerant of sex predators who prey on children. The line of attack, which is consistent with and inspired by the QAnon conspiracy theory, has reached the highest levels of the Trump campaign, with the candidate himself amplifying and endorsing the "#pedobiden" hashtag to his over 87 million followers on Twitter. 

But as Trump's supporters work to inject accusations of pedophilia into mainstream political discourse, an Insider investigation has unearthed long-buried details about a key player in Trump's reelection effort, and accusations that she presided over a shocking sexual-abuse scandal in which multiple individuals accused a long-time wrestling ring announcer of gratifying himself sexually with their feet when they were children.

The key player is Linda McMahon, who served in Trump's Cabinet as head of the Small Business Administration before stepping down to chair America First Action, a key pro-Trump super PAC. In the 2020 election cycle so far, America First Action has raised $128 million and spent $107 million on Trump's behalf. Before she took on a leadership role in Trumpworld, McMahon ran the entertainment behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment — formerly known as Titan Sports and the World Wrestling Federation — with her husband, Vince McMahon. Where Vince is known for his charismatic presence and bombastic, eccentric personality, Linda is the dry, "serious" businesswoman who often served as the sober foil to his outlandish theatrics.

The accused child molester was Mel Phillips, a ring announcer who also worked behind the scenes running the crew that put the wrestling ring itself together. His public downfall was chronicled in the tabloid press in the 1990s. But less well-known are the lengths to which the McMahons went to co-opt the young wrestling fans who accused Phillips — and at least one high-ranking WWE official — of sexual abuse, and the cavalier attitude the McMahons took toward accusations that their workers used wrestling to lure, groom, and sexually abuse young boys. A review of hundreds of pages of court records, Freedom of Information Act requests, and more than half a dozen interviews indicates that while the McMahons publicly expressed shock and concern over the abuse allegations, they actually tolerated them for years. Once the scandal broke, they paid off one of Phillips' accusers in an apparent effort to bring him into the fold, only to fire him and withdraw support after the glare of the spotlights had faded.

In a statement, a spokesperson for America First Action did not address claims that Linda McMahon ignored the allegations against Phillips, saying only, "America First Action nor Linda McMahon have any idea what you are talking about regarding child sexual abuse claims being made against the Democratic party by President Trump, the Trump campaign or by our organization. America First Action and Linda has not done any such thing."

In a statement, WWE attorney Jerry McDevitt said "the only persons implicated were not senior officials, nor were there any claims of anything approximating conventional forms of sexual abuse such as rape, sodomy, etc. Instead, [a young former WWE employee] claimed Mel Phillips had a foot fetish and played with his feet." He also described allegations that the McMahons were aware of the accusations against Phillips while continuing to pay him as a ring announcer as "outlandish" and "classic libel."

Linda McMahon
Linda McMahon speaks at a news briefing at the White House on Wednesday, Oct. 03, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Washington Post / Contributor

'There was not a damn thing we could do about it'

Wrestling fans know that WWE has many dark stories in its past — the best known being the death of Owen Hart in an in-ring accident, the steroid scandal that begat the federal conspiracy trial (and acquittal) of Vince McMahon in 1994, and the Chris Benoit murder-suicide. All became national news to varying degrees.

The spate of sexual-harassment and sexual-abuse allegations against the company that became public in 1992, though, is a different matter, and was covered mainly by tabloid television and talk shows like "Donahue" and "A Current Affair"; New York City's tabloid newspapers; and the insider wrestling newsletter and radio show scene. After Trump nominated Linda McMahon to run the Small Business Administration, "WWE's alleged culture of sexual abuse" was well-known enough to be marked down as a potential "red flag" in the Trump transition team's vetting file on McMahon, according to a copy leaked to Axios in 2019. But it never came up at her confirmation hearing, and McMahon faced no questions from her opponents about the allegations during her two failed Senate campaigns in Connecticut.

A variety of claims of sexual harassment and misconduct were aired against WWE figures during the early 1990s. But arguably the most serious, with the most accusers, revolved around the charge that Phillips, who joined what would become WWE in the mid-'70s and worked as both a ring crew supervisor and a ring announcer, sexually abused the young boys he worked with — and that Vince and Linda McMahon suspected it. Phillips' access to young wrestling fans depended on a quirk in wrestling culture born in the business' more regionalized days, in which "ring boys" — some as young as 13 — were recruited as gophers, primarily to help set up the rings for matches. Recruiting and managing them was one of Phillips' jobs.

Phillips died in 2012. He had retreated so far from public life in the 20 years after the scandal — his name only came up on forums like Reddit after memorabilia from a storage unit he defaulted on made it to eBay — that his passing was not reported anywhere, including local newspapers and the wrestling media. It was a quiet end for a man who had previously been one of the voices of the world's biggest wrestling company, and had also been publicly accused of enticing boys from broken homes with access to their favorite wrestlers, only to suggest they play a "game" that involved rubbing their feet on his crotch.

"It was a crazy time in the company," said one former high-level employee, who requested anonymity because he still works in the wrestling business but whose identity is known to Insider. "The boys that the company hired to put up the ring and so forth, were being … had by some of the folks who were in the wrestling ops side of things. And it was just generally known, by everybody, that it was going on."

"It was a mess. It was an absolute mess," he continued, his voice breaking a bit. The McMahons, the source suspected, "clearly knew what was going on, but really did nothing to stop it…. There was not a damn thing we could do about it."

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World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman Vince McMahon in 2009. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

'You shouldn't have called Honky Tonk Man his real name'

The scandal first broke in 1992 when two accusers, a pair of ring boys from New York state named Tom Cole and Chris Loss, went public to The San Diego Union-Tribune. The details of their accusations, which were later expanded on in a draft complaint that Cole's lawyer prepared in 1992 but never filed, were shocking: "A WWF employee" — later revealed to be Phillips — "would film Cole with a video camera while fondling the boy's feet and masturbating." (Cole would later acknowledge in a deposition that he never saw Phillips masturbating per se; rather, as his own draft complaint put it, Phillips "would frequently caress plaintiff's feet and would rub them against [Phillips'] own genital area." Other ring boys described similar behavior.) Cole also told the paper that Phillips "had a foot fetish" and "would play with all the young boys' feet for hours at a time." 

"Boys are getting propositioned and played with all the time," Loss told the paper, adding, "you sort of put up with it because you can make a lot of money."

Loss and Cole first started doing odd jobs for the WWE when they were 16 and 15 years old, respectively. They were, like many young wrestling fans, just kids looking for a way into the wrestling business.

According to the transcript of an interview with Loss conducted in 1992 by Cole's attorney, Loss said he first met Phillips in June 1989. Loss had attended the taping of the "Wrestling Challenge" TV show in Niagara Falls, New York; he recognized Phillips from his role announcing the matches and asked for an autograph. Phillips enlisted Loss' help in tracking down a graduation cap to use as a prop in the event.

As they were talking, Loss saw a wrestler walk by and shouted out the performer's real name, as opposed to his ring avatar — a smart-aleck move in the wrestling world. Phillips, Loss said, chastised him by stepping on his toe "really hard." According to the transcript, when Loss later complained that his foot hurt from the stomping, Phillips replied, "Well, let me see it for a second."

"Before I knew it," Loss told Cole's attorney, "he grabbed my foot and just ripped off my shoe and he was, like, playing with my foot … things were going through my head. Me and [my] friend were looking at each other in total shock, like is this guy gonna kill us or something? I mean, I'm sure that's extreme, but you hear stories about people." After several minutes, Loss said, he told Phillips to stop. "He kept on saying in this real weird voice, 'You shouldn't have called Honky Tonk Man his real name. You should show them more respect.' He was just rambling on like that. He's saying 'Are you sorry Chris?'"

Phillips eventually recruited Loss to be a ring boy, hiring him as a day laborer in October 1989. A former friend of Phillips who requested anonymity out of concern for the privacy of the victims, but whose identity is known to Insider, also said that he witnessed similar behavior on two separate occasions. When teenagers asked Phillips whether wrestling was fake, the friend said, Phillips would respond by asking them to take their shoes off so he could wrench their toes while asking "Does this feel fake?" The friend added that Phillips videotaped one of the two incidents and later played it for their mutual friends.

A friend of Loss' who accompanied him on some wrestling trips also sat for an interview with Cole's lawyer, saying that the boys sometimes roomed with Phillips and that he would engage them in horseplay while rubbing their bodies against his crotch.

"When he was wrestling with us … grabbing our toes, he would put us in between his legs up near his groin area," the friend said in the 1992 interview. "Just our whole body so that we couldn't move around." The friend said Phillips showed them videotapes of teens wrestling in his backyard ring and spoke about a nationwide network of "friends" he liked to wrestle with.

"He told us that he has done it to a lot of different people," the transcript reads. "He said that he had friends over in different states that would help him, and he has done it to them. He's told us that." Insider was unable to reach Loss' friend for an interview.

Cole also leveled accusations against another WWE employee, Terry Joyal, then the vice president of operations, who was Phillips' supervisor and had previously wrestled under the name Terry Garvin. The draft complaint accuses Joyal of harassing Cole twice — first when the boy was 16 and again when he was 19 — by asking Cole to "engage in immediate sexual activity with him." Seven years later, in 1999, Cole told the newsletter Wrestling Perspective that Joyal had invited him over to his house to talk about coming assignments. "He goes and tums on the TV and a porno comes on. I was like, 'What the f--- is this guy doing?'" Cole said. "He's like, 'Has your girlfriend sucked your d--- like that?' I was like, 'What?' He's like, 'Let me suck your d--- like that.'" Cole said he rebuffed the advances and reported to his new job as a WWE warehouse manager the next day. Phillips showed up while he was painting a ring and fired him in February 1990, saying it was on Joyal's orders. Joyal died in 1998.

In a 1993 deposition, Cole described his treatment by Phillips and Joyal as devastating. "I felt like my life was destroyed, you know, because all my life all I ever wanted to do was, you know, work for wrestling and stuff," he said. "Because, you know, I don't sleep with someone and that someone is going to molest me when you're a kid...they just, like, throw you out like you're a piece of trash."

In his statement on behalf of the WWE, attorney McDevitt acknowledged that Cole alleged that Joyal "made an unwanted solicitation twice, once when Tom Cole was 19, which is not exactly a child's age."

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US President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference with Linda McMahon, head of Small Business Administration, March 29, 2019 at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

A 'peculiar and unnatural' relationship with kids

The allegation that Phillips was routinely molesting children on the McMahons' watch was devastating. Compounding this devastation is evidence suggesting that both Vince and Linda McMahon suspected the abuse was happening but did almost nothing to stop it and failed to report it to the police.

When Cole and Loss first came forward publicly, Vince McMahon appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" in March 1992, where he said that he "really don't know what to make of it" and had "no idea, whatsoever" about any sexual abuse going on in his company.

When the New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick saw McMahon's appearance, he was irate: Just days before, Mushnick wrote in a 1992 column, McMahon had confessed in a phone call that he suspected Phillips of taking an "unnatural" interest in young boys and had even fired him for it before hiring him back.

"Two weeks ago, during pour-his-heart-out phone calls," Mushnick wrote, McMahon "told West Coast-based journalist Dave Meltzer, then me, that he had let Phillips go four years ago because Phillips' relationship with kids seemed peculiar and unnatural. McMahon said he re-hired Phillips with the caveat that Phillips steer clear from kids." Meltzer confirmed to Insider that this was an accurate account of his call with McMahon.

McMahon would bring a defamation lawsuit against Mushnick and the Post a year later, but that complaint never challenged Mushnick's account of that phone call. In a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit, Mushnick described what he said were detailed conversations with Vince McMahon in which the WWE mogul acknowledged that he and Linda McMahon "had known for some time that Mel had a peculiar and unnatural interest and attachment to children" and had fired him for it, only to let Phillips return out of pity.

"McMahon told me that it was his great regard for children, his own personal regard for children, that made him get rid of Mel Phillips," Mushnick said in the deposition.

"He told me that he was returned by Linda," Mushnick testified. "Vince and Linda returned Phillips to the organization with the caveat that Mel steer clear of underaged boys, stop hanging around kids, and stop chasing after kids." Vince McMahon said he brought him back, Mushnick testified, because Phillips "really missed the wrestling" and "really missed the scene."

Vince McMahon's acknowledgement — as described by Mushnick — that he fired and rehired Phillips in 1988 is supported by the available video evidence. Phillips disappeared from his post on the syndicated "Wrestling Challenge" TV show after a March 1988 taping but reemerged for a live broadcast six weeks later at Boston Garden. WWE never publicly acknowledged his absence at the time. Phillips' former friend who spoke with Insider added that Phillips never mentioned the 1988 firing until the McMahons dismissed him again in 1992. Phillips argued that the fact the McMahons had rehired him so quickly in 1988 was evidence of his innocence, the former friend said.

In his deposition, Mushnick said he had talked to McMahon about other rumored victims of abuse within WWE beyond Cole and Loss. He recalled mentioning a specific name to Vince, a teen Mushnick said was referred to within WWE as "Mrs. Mel Phillips." As Mushnick remembered it, McMahon responded "that's his guy, but he has his parents' permission." When asked in the deposition whether he would object to a consensual relationship between Phillips and the teen had he been over 18, Mushnick noted that he had heard that the individual "is an intellectually — he's been described to me by several people as extremely slow." (Insider was unable to locate the individual in question.)

In a 1992 investigation into the scandal, Penthouse reported that Phillips "was once spotted in the backseat of a car in Pennsylvania perform­ing a sexual act on an 11-year-old boy." The former top WWE star Bruno Sammartino, who died in April 2018, told the magazine that "Vince McMahon was told about the in­cident, and he elected not to do any­thing." The magazine added that Phillips "was briefly suspended by the WWF sev­eral years later for a similar act," possibly a reference to the temporary dismissal circa 1988 that Mushnick and Meltzer say Vince McMahon told them about.

There is no public evidence that anyone ever reported Phillips to state or local law enforcement. The Miami Herald, citing sources close to the investigation, reported after the scandal broke in 1992 that the WWE was "under investigation by the federal government on allegations of sexual abuse of minors and the illegal transportation of minors across state lines," adding that federal investigators were focusing on Mel Phillips and Terry Garvin. Cole told the New York Daily News in 1994 that he had given testimony before a federal grand jury, and the former friend of Phillips who spoke with Insider said he was subpoenaed in the summer of 1993. But neither Phillips nor anyone else involved with the WWE was ever charged with abusing minors.

Law-enforcement records obtained by Insider under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that the investigation into Phillips was not comprehensive. A request for the FBI's file on Phillips yielded just two heavily redacted pages showing that a former WWE employee gave the FBI information about him in January 1993 and that agents tried to interview Phillips two weeks later, only to be greeted by his mother, who said she hadn't seen him in "a couple of days." A 1993 memo from the Behavioral Sciences Unit indicates that the FBI had acquired a videotape of Phillips "wrestling" with minors but that the tape, shot in public, "contained no obvious sexual activity."

McDevitt said in his statement that "the allegations you now want to rehash in order to smear Linda were, as you note, thoroughly investigated by a federal grand jury for over a year and a half, after which they brought no charges against anybody. Had any crimes been committed by anybody, the overzealous prosecutors in that matter would have brought charges." He noted that Cole said in a deposition that he never saw Phillips masturbate, but did not address claims that Phillips rubbed boys' feet against his crotch. Nor did he address Mushnick and Meltzer's claims that Vince McMahon told them he was aware of allegations against Phillips as early as 1988.

As for the defamation case against Mushnick and the Post, the parties settled in March 1994 without any money changing hands. Neither the Post nor Mushnick admitted any error.

A $55,000 settlement

In the days after Loss and Cole came forward, media pressure began to mount on the McMahons and their company, both in the New York newspapers and on tabloid-style national television shows. Whether the story could have blown up on a more mainstream level is something we'll never know, though, because it got cut off at the knees by a settlement — a copy of which Insider obtained from Mushnick's archive — between Cole and the McMahons. They brought him back into the fold, agreed to pay him $55,000, and offered him a tryout as a ring announcer.

Loss disappeared from public view. A former friend of his, the wrestling writer Mike Sawyer, wrote a letter about the ring-boy scandal to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in March 2004 in which he said Loss had been "contacted by the WWF after his name got out."

"He went up there for a visit, and came back to Niagara Falls a totally changed kid," the letter continued. "He never said another word. He took a job at an AM radio station in Grand Island and never talked about the business to me, or anyone else."

Loss did not respond to an email from Insider seeking comment for this story.

Before the settlement, Cole sat for a series of interviews for "Now It Can Be Told," a tabloid TV show hosted and produced by Geraldo Rivera, with the stipulation that the interviews could be aired only after he had filed his lawsuit. Since Cole never filed the claim, those interviews never aired — in part because Cole moved for a temporary restraining order to prevent the broadcast while his attorney continued negotiating with the McMahons. (He swore in a supporting affidavit that the interview included "graphic descriptions of sexual abuse I sustained between the ages of 13 and 19, most of it between the ages of 13 and 16," that "left me emotionally scarred.")

As media attention intensified — a panel discussion on Phil Donahue's namesake syndicated talk show, then a daytime-TV powerhouse, was scheduled for March 16, 1992 — the McMahons pushed for a deal that could push the ring boys' claims off the airwaves. In his 1999 interview with Wrestling Perspective, Cole described the full-court press: "My lawyer kept walking out of the room and leaving me in there for 15, 20 minutes at a time with Vince McMahon and his wife. He'd go on walks with the [WWE] lawyer and leave me in the room and McMahon would talk to me and say, 'It's terrible what happened to you and ba-ba-ba. We want you to come back and work for us' and this and that. But what they really wanted was to find out any other kids' names, and any other people who were involved and anyone they could pretty much go to."

According to the same interview with Cole, he blurted out that he wasn't looking for money — "probably the stupidest thing I ever said," he told Wrestling Perspective and Vince McMahon offered him his job back, with back pay. Cole agreed.

According to Cole, the McMahons immediately tried to milk his return for public-relations value. Vince McMahon agreed to appear on "Donahue" at the last minute.

"I stayed in the Sheraton in Stamford for the whole week," Cole said in 1999. "Linda McMahon said to me, she was like, 'We're going to send a car for you so you can go shopping. I'm sending $5,000 over so you can go get clothes and whatever you need and ba-ba-ba.' So I went and I did that. Then she said, I guess the next day, I remember getting the phone call from her, and she said, 'Listen, Tom, there's a show coming up tomorrow. Phil Donahue. I would be honored' — I can't believe I believed this s--- now when I look at it — 'if you were there.' I was like, 'Sure, no problem.'"

Flanked by Linda McMahon and her friend and WWE performer Liz "Miss Elizabeth" Hulette, Cole sat in the audience for the whole "Donahue" show. According to Cole, the plan was that if his name came up, Vince would point him out, and then announce the settlement in a dramatic televised gesture. But Phil Donahue didn't even mention Cole, and Vince McMahon never got his triumphant moment.

Linda McMahon and Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump speaks with Ivanka Trump and SBA Administrator Linda McMahon (L) during an event with small businesses at the White House in Washington, DC, on August 1, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

'The opportunity of a lifetime is a terrible thing to waste'

Cole didn't last long on the road as a proper WWE ring crew member, in part because a surprising number of fans recognized him from media coverage of his accusations against Phillips and catcalled him at events. The Department of Justice and a federal grand jury were then both investigating WWE, and Cole has alleged that the McMahons were using him to gain insight into the investigation. "The WWF at the same time wanted me to share information with them about what the government was asking, and I did," he said in 1999. "But every time I went before the government, I was to the point where it was driving me nuts. I said to Linda, 'I don't want to share any more information. I can't handle this anymore. I just want to work. I don't want to [be] bothered with all this stuff. I don't want to tell you anything anymore.' She got really pissed and things started deteriorating…. I knew I probably wasn't going to be there much longer."

Under his arrangement with the McMahons, Cole was to continue his education with their help — and would lose his job if he dropped out, failed any class, or did not "make satisfactory progress toward [his] degree" at community college. He told Wrestling Perspective in 1999 that he just could not handle school in the wake of his abuse and the subsequent tumult, but WWE was insistent.

When the semester came to an end in June 1993, Linda McMahon personally fired Cole. In her termination letter, obtained by Insider, she noted with frustration that he had failed all of his classes with poor attendance.

"Vince and I believe that we have over the past year, demonstrated our willingness and our support not only financially but emotionally to helping you," she wrote. "But at this point we believe that we have done everything we can. Therefore, this letter is to advise you of your termination with Titan Sports, effective immediately, and that you will receive your last paycheck this week." After that, she included some information about what Cole needed to iron out with human resources, before concluding with one last parting shot. "Again, Tom, I find this action truly regrettable. The opportunity of a lifetime is a terrible thing to waste."

Cole had already prepared another lawsuit — one that he actually filed a few days before his firing, citing "unlawful sexual harassment and discrimination," breach of contract, and "false imprisonment." He also filed for unemployment benefits in Connecticut shortly after he received the termination letter; WWE contested that claim. Both cases dragged on for about two years. A federal judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit, but it's not clear why. The case file has been destroyed per record-retention schedules.

A few weeks after Cole's suit was filed in 1993, the Charleston Post and Courier asked Linda McMahon whether she still believed that Cole had been sexually abused by Phillips. "As I have found out now, no, I don't," she replied. "I think he's very confused." At that point, she quickly pivoted back to talking about Cole's "wasted opportunity."

Cole and his family responded to Linda McMahon's change of heart by picketing WWE headquarters, which a local Connecticut cable-news outlet covered. In her interview for the segment in question, McMahon expanded on her comments about the ring-boy scandal. "First, [Mel Phillips] was put on suspension pending investigation," she said. "The investigation was taking so long, there was so much negative happening with it, that we finally told Mel it was better for him and better for our company for him to go on in a different way."

"McMahon doesn't deny Phillips had a foot fetish," the TV reporter said in a voiceover, "but she said it had become a joke and was blown out of proportion."

To discredit Cole, the McMahons seized on the fact that his older brother, Lee Cole — who had been at his brother's side throughout the ordeal and had encouraged him to go public — was arrested in 1992 on suspicion of violating his probation from a nine-year-old attempted-robbery conviction. (Lee, in an interview with Insider, said the arrest stemmed from a paperwork error; court records show that his probation was discharged just three days after his arrest). "Tom has been and continues to be manipulated by his brother Lee Cole," Linda McMahon said in her interview with the Charleston Post and Courier, portraying Lee as a Svengali who was conspiring with Phil Mushnick to destroy the company. "And it's a tragedy. It's really a tragedy." Legal filings in McMahon's lawsuit against Mushnick, meanwhile, accused Lee of masterminding false allegations against his company.

As for Cole's unemployment appeals, he recounted in 1999 that the company claimed he was ineligible for unemployment because he was fired for nonpayment of a company cellphone bill, and repeatedly fought the claim. Linda McMahon personally made an appearance at one hearing to contest the benefits, Cole said.

"I brought up the subject of what I had gone through with the molestation when I was a kid, from the sexual harassment, to everything else," Cole said in '99, describing the hearing. "Linda hated the fact that I brought that up and said, 'That has nothing to do with this. That's not pertinent to what's going on now.' I said, 'But it is. This is why my job turned out the way it did. It is pertinent to what's going on.' The court agreed with me. They agreed I could bring those things up."

'I'm sending a check to Linda's campaign fund this evening'

After his lawsuit fizzled, Cole vanished from the public eye until 1999, when he sat for the Wrestling Perspective interview and eventually appeared as both a caller and a guest from time to time on Dave Meltzer's "Wrestling Observer Live" streaming talk show. That same year, a new person came forward with abuse allegations, suing WWE and Phillips in a lawsuit that was not reported on until a Huffington Post story alluded to it in December 2016.

According to the complaint, the allegations largely tracked the claims of Phillips' other accusers: From January 1986 through March 1987, Phillips rubbed the boy's genitals and asked him to play a "game" in which he "rubbed Plaintiff's feet and toes against his crotch," all while the announcer would "pull Plaintiff's toes apart until Plaintiff screamed." Both sides moved jointly for a dismissal in 2001, likely indicating a settlement. 

In his statement, McDevitt said "I have no recall of that suit, as it was no doubt a frivolous claim. I do know that we did not settle any other claims in 1999 or at any other time regarding such matters. The simple truth is that despite all the publicity in the early 1990s and the existence of a thorough federal investigation, Tom Cole and to a much lesser degree Chris Loss are the only people who made foot fetish claims against Mel Phillips."

The docket for the 1999 case, which was filed in U.S. district court in Massachusetts, shows that McDevitt sought and received permission to appear as an attorney for WWE in the case in March 2000. The WWE's answer to the complaint, which stated that the company lacked "sufficient knowledge or information to form a belief as to the truth" of the abuse allegations and therefore denied them, listed McDevitt as "of counsel" for the company. A motion to dismiss the case filed by WWE in April 2000 bears McDevitt's signature. 

Reached by Insider, the plaintiff declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Cole stayed out of the public eye until 2010, when Linda McMahon set out on the first of her two unsuccessful Senate campaigns in Connecticut. Reporters for Politico called Cole, who hung up on them. Cole then reached out to McDevitt, who forwarded Politico an email statement from Cole saying "I can truly say without hesitation I'm thankful for how Linda handled my situation." He even added: "I'm sending a check to Linda's campaign fund this evening. She is after all my favorite type of Politician...Fiscally Sound. As a life long Republican I hope she wins."

'What's a dead pro wrestler or two?'

The ring-boy scandal quickly faded from view as other controversies roiled the wrestling world. As the death toll from rampant steroid and pill abuse rose from the mid-'90s through the late aughts, Mushnick became incredulous at how the McMahons' wrestling empire, with its hype and bombast and DayGlo violence, managed to escape the accountability that was visited on more traditional sports.

"After all, what's a dead pro wrestler, or two," he wrote sarcastically, addressing the question of why governmental bodies like Congress would investigate baseball's steroid culture but not pro wrestling's. "Or 20. Or 80. They're only pro wrestlers; it's not as if they're real people." In other words, the public sneering over wrestlers' chosen line of work insulated their employers from the scrutiny other sports face.

This general disregard for what might have been massive news stories may explain why the McMahons never had to address the fact that two reporters say Vince admitted on the record that he had essentially bungled the Mel Phillips situation. CEOs of massive companies don't usually tell reporters they were so suspicious of an employee's "unnatural" interest in children that they fired the man, only to quickly rehire him if he pledged to stay away from kids.

But perhaps because he's a wrestling promoter, not only did the larger press not pick up the story, but even reporters who were covering the ring-boys scandal didn't pursue it aggressively. Once the scandal fizzled out the McMahons turned their attention to suing reporters and media outlets — implicitly sending a message that scrutinizing WWE has unpleasant consequences — while tending to the day-to-day business of selling ritualized conflict, demonizing enemies, and manufacturing myths of heroic masculine dominance. 

It's a playbook that others have used to some effect.

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