Fired UA football coach Rich Rodriguez said through his attorneys Monday that his former assistant tried to extort him out of several million dollars by threatening to take her sexual harassment claims public.
On Dec. 28, Melissa Wilhelmsen filed a $7.5 million claim against Rodriguez, alleging years of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. On Jan. 19, Wilhelmsen filed a second claim for $8.5 million against the UA, saying that the school is liable for his conduct.
Rodriguez was fired Jan. 2, the day the first notice of claim was made public.
In Rodriguez’s response, filed Monday with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, attorneys for the former coach called all the allegations “fictitious,” saying that it’s “time to expose and to end the Wilhelmsens’ and attorney (Augustine) Jimenez’s outrageous extortion attempt.”
The letter says that “the reality of Coach Rodriguez’s football office was that it was open and family-friendly, and the Rodriguez family and Ms. Wilhelmsen had a loving family relationship.”
This differs greatly from Wilhelmsen’s claims, in which she said that in addition to being forced to cover up for Rodriguez’s extramarital affair, there were several instances when Rodriguez was physically inappropriate with her — brushing up against her breast, trying to kiss her and making comments about his genitals and underwear. The claim also mentions “The Hideaway Book,” which was intended for coaches and some operations employees in order to “establish secrecy within Rodriguez’s inner circle and establish complete control of the group.”
Rodriguez’s response letter says that after Wilhelmsen left her employment with the UA last July, she, her husband and her attorney tried to extort the Rodriguezes for $7.5 million with “contrived, sensationalized allegations of sexual harassment.”
“Ms. Wilhelmsen also presented the University with a list of fabricated claims that prompted the University to hire an outside law firm to fully investigate her outrageous allegations, and they found them completely unsubstantiated,” the letter says.
The UA said the school’s Office of Institutional Equity had received a sexual harassment complaint about Rodriguez in October, and hired an outside law firm to investigate. Wilhelmsen refused to cooperate with the investigation, the UA said.
The Wilhelmsens' “plot” to extort Rodriguez likely began after Melissa Wilhelmsen failed her insurance licensing exam, which ended up costing her the job for which she left the UA, according to Rodriguez’s response letter.
After Wilhelmsen initiated the UA’s investigation into Rodriguez, she and Jimenez demanded that Rodriguez pay them $7.5 million to buy her silence so that she wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation, the response letter says.
In phone calls to Rodriguez’s attorney on Nov. 2 and Nov. 4, Jimenez made three false claims of harassment, the letter says, which included Rodriguez calling Wilhelmsen into his office while he was wearing only a towel, hugging her without his shirt on and at one time, exposing himself to Wilhelmsen.
The false allegations, the letter says, weren’t even included in Wilhelmsen’s claim against Rodriguez.
“Attorney Jimenez then stated that in exchange for several million dollars, Ms. Wilhelmsen would not publicly disclose these allegations, as well as information about Coach’s extramarital affair, and would not cooperate further with the ongoing University investigation,” the letter says. “These were baseless claims — Coach Rodriguez believed they were flat-out extortion.”
In a Nov. 8 email, Jimenez clarified the desired dollar amount, saying “I chose my words very precisely when I told you that I did not have a number, but that it would take ‘multiple millions of dollars’ to resolve this matter,” the letter says. In response to the extortion demand, Rodriguez took a four-hour polygraph based on the initial allegations. He passed fully, the letter says.
At the same time, Rodriguez’s attorneys notified the U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI and UA of Wilhelmsen and Jimenez’s demands.
On Dec. 10, Jimenez presented the demand letter to Rodriguez’s attorneys, giving Dec. 26 as the final deadline for payment, which was the day before the Wildcats were scheduled to play in the Foster Farms Bowl against Purdue.
“This carried with it the clear but unspoken message that if the Rodriguezes didn’t pay on or before the 26th, then the following day the Wilhelmsens and Jimenez would file and make public the Notice of Claim to maximize publicity of it and to maximize the harm to the Rodriguezes and the University of Arizona the day of the Bowl game,” the letter says. “Demanding the payment the day before the Bowl Game was vicious, cut-throat and explainable only as the ultimate threat to extort Coach and Mrs. Rodriguez of the $7.5 million.”
The next 18 pages of the letter dispute in detail nearly every one of Wilhelmsen’s claims, offering up witness rebuttals from Wildcats staffers and employees that worked with Rodriguez at previous schools.
The document lists at least seven employees by name who say Rodriguez never made sexual advances on Wilhelmsen or acted inappropriately in the football offices.
Included in these denials is Wilhelmsen’s “cloak-and-dagger” characterization of “The Hideaway Book,” which the letter says outlines objectives, football strategies and Rodriguez’s expectations for each coach, trainer and athlete on the team.
In her original claim, Wilhelmsen said that the book included phrases such as, “Title IX doesn’t exist in our office.” Rodriguez’s letter says that the book doesn’t say anything to indicate that Title IX — federal laws preventing sex discrimination — doesn’t apply to the program.
Wilhelmsen’s description of the football offices as a sexually-charged and hostile environment are inherently false, the letter says, adding that Wilhelmsen “partied with players and they posted pictures on social media with her” and on one occasion, “adjusted her top to show off her cleavage” and said something about it being time to raise camp funds, which an employee who overheard said he thought was a joke.
In her claims against Rodriguez and the University, Wilhelmsen said that Rodriguez always asked her to close the door when she went into his office, which was unnecessary and made her uncomfortable.
And while other employees in the office denied Wilhelmsen’s claim that the two had “frequent closed-door meetings,” that almost seems to be a moot point, given that Rodriguez’s office door is made of transparent glass, the letter says.
Rodriguez’s attorneys attached a photo of the office door to the claim, saying “a picture is worth 1,000 words.”
In response to Wilhelmsen’s claims that Rodriguez ogled her, glared at her thighs and stood inappropriately close to her, the letter says that these are simply Wilhelmsen’s “self-absorbed opinion of herself” and her belief that Rodriguez would look at her in an inappropriate manner.
“These self-aggrandizing, untrue and utterly ridiculous allegations are consistent with Ms. Wilhelmsen’s view that most men she encountered were hitting on her, as she freely shared with her coworkers,” the letter says, and goes on to allege that Wilhelmsen had once been assaulted by her husband, who was “insanely jealous” of the men she worked with.
Wilhelmsen’s claim made several references to Rodriguez’s underwear, including a request by Rodriguez to fetch him a new pair from the equipment room and on another occasion, telling her about his preferred style of underwear that “visually enhanced” his genitals. Both of these claims, the response letter says, are “absurd and contrived.”
The letter says that the football program doesn’t stock underwear in the equipment room and references a declaration by the UA’s director of football operations to that effect. In regards to the “visually enhancing” underwear, the letter says that the comment was a joke between Wilhelmsen and Rodriguez in response to an unsolicited pair of underwear the coach received as a marketing gimmick.
“In over 30 years of coaching, not one other female staff member has claimed Coach Rodriguez sexually harassed her,” the letter says, adding that this includes employees at his previous schools, Michigan, West Virginia and Glenville State.
Rodriguez has fought back since Wilhelmsen’s initial extortion attempt in November and will continue to “fight to expose her claims for the fabrications they are,” the letter says.
Jimenez did not immediately respond to the Star’s request for comment on the allegations of extortion.
State law allows Rodriguez 60 days from the Dec. 28 filing for which to settle the claim, before Wilhelmsen can pursue it in court.