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Published: Saturday, 7/25/2009

Big Ben's accuser has tough road

ASSOCIATED PRESS

RENO - The woman accusing Ben Roethlisberger of raping her last summer will have a difficult time convincing a judge and jury she was assaulted in the star quarterback's penthouse hotel room partly because she never reported it to police and waited a year to file a civil lawsuit.

Several lawyers and legal scholars say the 31-year-old employee of Harrah's Lake Tahoe hotel has the added chore of taking on a casino in Nevada, where the gambling industry wields considerable clout.

But she might have a chance of winning an out-of-court settlement from the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback known as "Big Ben" because millions of dollars in endorsements are at stake, legal observers say.

"The question they are going to be asked right out of the chute is why did she not file a complaint with the police?" said Dick Gammick, the district attorney for Washoe County in Reno who is not involved in the case.

Cal Dunlap, the woman's lawyer, who is the former Washoe County district attorney, has refused to comment. "The entire matter will be tried in court and not in the media," he told the AP yesterday.

The woman, an executive VIP casino host at Harrah's at the time, said in the lawsuit that Roethlisberger lured her to his room under false pretenses and raped her during a celebrity golf tournament last summer. She's seeking a minimum of $490,000 plus punitive damages. The suit filed in Reno last week also accuses Harrah's officials of covering up the alleged assault and going to great lengths to silence her after she says she reported it the next day to the hotel's security chief.

Roethlisberger, 27, said Thursday the allegations are "reckless and false."

"I would never, ever force myself on a woman," he said, and vowed to fight the claim in the courts.

Harrah's officials refused to comment.

Scott Freeman, a Reno defense lawyer whose clients have included the infamous Mustang Ranch brothel, said it is "highly unlikely" she will prevail in what shapes up as a he-said, she-said case like the one involving NBA star Kobe Bryant.

"There is no evidence of the alleged sexual assault, other than her saying it," Freeman said.

Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School who specializes in sex and the law, said in addition to apparently not having any evidence, the accuser has no witnesses, a history of depression and some "obvious financial motives - none of which makes her a very appealing complainant."

"That said, it may well have happened. There are certainly more than enough examples of factual settings like this where celebrity athletes feel entitled," she said. "But that is not going to win a case."

Freeman said Roethlisberger's play at the tournament again last week "would be consistent with innocence." The 6-foot-5, 240-pound first-round draft pick out of Miami (Ohio) in 2004 appeared on the cover of the tourney's 20th anniversary commemorative program with Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Elway.

David Houston, a Reno lawyer whose high profile clients include Hulk Hogan and Joe Francis of "Girls Gone Wild" fame, said a court victory is doubtful, but a settlement is probable.

"Anytime you put famous athletes in the gun sights, they start to lose endorsements, the public relation teams get involved and crisis management takes over," he said.

Roethlisberger signed an eight-year contract extension worth $102 million in 2008. He also is earning at least $2.5 million annually in endorsements, Sports Illustrated reported last month.

The lawsuit says the woman didn't go to the sheriff because she feared Harrah's would side with the sports star, who is a friend of the hotel-casino's regional president John Koster, and she would be fired.

She said when she reported the alleged assault to Harrah's security chief, he told her she was "over reacting," that "most girls would feel lucky to get to have sex with someone like Ben Roethlisberger" and that "Koster would love you even more if he knew about this."

The lawsuit said that from August to December she was treated at five hospitals for depression and anxiety stemming from the alleged assault and returned to work each time after treatment.



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