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Jackson chastises MLB for 'ill-contrived questions' in background checks

1/31/2008 - MLB

NEW YORK -- Jesse Jackson criticized Major League Baseball
on Thursday for sending investigators to the hometowns of umpires
to ask neighbors questions that include whether the umpire belongs to
the Ku Klux Klan.

"Major League Baseball has done a disservice to its progressive
social history by equating southern whites with white
supremacists," Jackson said in a statement. "I am surprised the
professional league which helped change social attitudes in all
sports leagues about segregation, by championing Jackie Robinson,
would make such a destructive move."

World Umpires Association president John Hirschbeck and union
spokesman Lamell McMorris said Wednesday that Tom Christopher, the
Milwaukee-based supervisor of security and investigations in the
commissioner's office, had asked questions about Klan membership to
neighbors of umpires Greg Gibson and Sam Holbrook, who reside in
Kentucky.

In addition, Hirschbeck said similar questions had been
asked of neighbors of umpire Ron Kulpa, who lives in suburban St.
Louis.

"In a year with the injustice of Jena Six, nooses hung around
the country and the Tiger Woods-Golfweek scandal, Major League
Baseball's false impersonations of friendships and ill-contrived
questions further press sensitive racial stereotypes, with no basis
for suspicion," Jackson said. "They have essentially defamed
their people in their own neighborhoods."

Baseball stepped up background checks last August, after it
became public that the FBI was investigating then-NBA referee Tim
Donaghy for betting on games. Donaghy pleaded guilty to felony
charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting
betting information through interstate commerce, and he awaits
sentencing. He has since resigned from his job as a referee.

MLB asked umpires to sign authorizations allowing the sport to
conduct financial background checks, but umps balked.

"We did not anticipate that they would approach neighbors
posing as a close colleague and friend of the umpire's and asking
them questions such as: Do you know if umpire 'X' is a member of
the Ku Klux Klan? Does he grow marijuana plants? Does he beat his
wife? Have you seen the police at his home? Does he throw wild
parties?" McMorris said from India, where he was taking part in
the tribute marking the 60th anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi.

"To try to link our umpires to the Ku Klux Klan is highly
offensive. It is essentially defaming the umpires in their
communities by conducting a very strange and poorly executed
investigation. It resembles kind of secret police in some kind of
despotic nation."

Contacted Wednesday, Christopher referred questions to Rob
Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations.
Manfred did not immediately return a call.

"The claims of inappropriate questions by individuals
conducting background checks was brought to our attention and
looked into," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president
of operations, said in a statement. "It was determined that these
claims were inaccurate. Questioning was conducted with a written
script consistent with common practice, and there was no
inappropriate conduct on behalf of the investigators."

Alison Rohan, who lives across the street from Kulpa in Maryland
Heights, Mo., said Christopher knocked on her door two or three
weeks ago and gave her his card.

"He explained they were going to be talking to neighbors and
friends because of the problems with the basketball league and that
Ron knew about it," she said. "He listed about 10 different
questions, the first one being did Ron live out of his means? For
example, does he drive a Rolls-Royce?"

Rohan said she told Christopher that Kulpa lived in a manner
similar to that of his neighbors.

"He asked if Ron belonged to any groups or organizations," she
said.

"Groups?" she remembered replying.

"You know, like the KKK," she said Christopher told her.

"We both laughed and I said no," Rohan said. "He belongs to a
neighborhood Harley-riding group of dads."

Hirschbeck, who lives in Poland, Ohio, said that shortly before
Christmas, he encountered Christopher on a street in his own
neighborhood.

Hirschbeck said MLB was taking what the WUA considers
to be a typical heavy-handed approach to umpires and that it would
be brought up in negotiations for the next labor contract. The
current deal expires after the 2009 season.

"Once again, baseball's favorite way of doing things: Ready,
fire, aim," Hirschbeck said. "It's not a good way to start the
season."