Monday, September 22, 2008
Updated: September 23, 5:23 PM ET
As Donaghy's prison term begins, resolution remains elusive
By Mike Fish
While NBA clubs gear up for the start of another training camp, disgraced referee Tim Donaghy began serving a 15-month sentence on Tuesday at a minimum-security federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla.
Donaghy, a veteran of 13 NBA seasons, created a public-relations nightmare for the league when he pleaded guilty last year to felony gambling charges. Two other gamblers who attended a Philadelphia-area high school with Donaghy -- James "Baba" Battista and Thomas Martino -- also pleaded guilty in the tips-for-payoffs gambling scheme. Battista was sentenced to 15 months; Martino to a year.
Over the past year, NBA commissioner David Stern has cast Donaghy -- 41 and a divorced father of four young girls -- as a "rogue, isolated criminal" solely responsible for the betting scandal that threatened the credibility of the league and its referees. No other refs have been charged, nor has the league publicly announced disciplinary action against any others.
Donaghy, though, has continued to try to divert the spotlight back to the league's officiating culture. And amid his allegations, the NBA is still awaiting the results of an independent review of its officiating programs -- the so-called Pedowitz Report, named after former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz, whom the league commissioned to conduct the study. From Washington, a congressional committee is keeping a watchful eye on developments.
At the height of the NBA Finals in June between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, Donaghy's attorney, John Lauro, ignited a firestorm with court filings that alleged "top executives of the NBA sought to manipulate games using referees to boost ticket sales and television ratings." Donaghy's attorney described a culture that allegedly discouraged referees from calling technical fouls on star players, and further insisting that many referees carry on "relationships" with team executives, coaches, and players that violate their NBA contracts.
In pleading guilty last year, Donaghy told the judge: "By having this nonpublic information, I was in a unique position to predict the outcome of NBA games." Although the information is incomplete, investigators suggest Donaghy proved successful at picking winners a staggering 80 percent of the time.
Sources said the FBI, which discovered and alerted the NBA to the gambling scheme, found Donaghy's information credible, though it didn't lead to indictments against additional refs or anyone else affiliated with the league.
Stern has dismissed Donaghy's allegations as "baseless," suggesting that in making them, Donaghy was trying to lighten his prison sentence. Presumably, the league is banking on the Pedowitz Report to confirm the point that Donaghy was a lone operator and that no other officials engaged in criminal activity or compromised the league's credibility.
League sources told ESPN.com that Pedowitz is expected to make public his report before the Oct. 28 start of the regular season, perhaps within the next two weeks. Pedowitz did not return a call seeking comment.
When Donaghy was sentenced in late July, Pedowitz said he would require additional time to gather information before publicly releasing his findings or recommendations. Pedowitz is reported to have interviewed every current league referee, though Donaghy himself has declined requests to speak with him.
So far, Donaghy has raised allegations against the league only in court filings, and it remains unclear when, or even if, he plans to come forward with additional details. Already strapped for cash, facing legal fees and out of a job, Donaghy is said to be fearful of possible retribution from the league if he enters further into a war of words with the NBA.
One place where he might be able to tell his story with a possible grant of immunity is in front of Congress, though Washington lawmakers have been criticized recently for delving too deeply into the sports arena at the expense of weightier issues -- including, now, a frightening financial crisis. Nothing concerning the Donaghy situation is scheduled before the 110th Congress adjourns Friday to allow its members to campaign for reelection.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., has warned Stern in two separate letters that the situation is on his radar. In a statement released to ESPN.com on Monday, however, Rush said that the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection currently does not plan to call hearings.
"We continue to monitor developments and to review oversight and enforcement measures the NBA has put in place to ensure that the integrity of the sport is not undermined by referees or others in authority associated with this premiere sport," said Rush, the subcommittee chairman. "Our subcommittee has no plans to hold a hearing on this matter this year, but I retain my right to raise questions or to request information from Commissioner Stern, and others, as circumstances warrant. Our monitoring of this situation continues to be ongoing whether or not Congress is in session."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.