Commentary

Donaghy's claims serious, troubling for NBA

Updated: June 11, 2008, 11:49 PM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy asserted in publicly filed court papers Tuesday that six other officials had manipulated the outcomes of four NBA games, including two playoff games. Although Donaghy and his attorney, John F. Lauro, offered detail to support their claims of misconduct by referees, team executives and NBA executives, they did not offer the identities of the teams or the individuals.

Donaghy's explosive charges came in response to a demand from the NBA that Donaghy pay $1 million to the league, which claims to be a victim of the referee's admitted crimes. The league's demand for $1 million in restitution and Donaghy's response raise a number of legal questions. Here are some of the questions and their answers:

Donaghy pleaded guilty to two felony charges this past summer, admitting he was guilty of gambling violations and money laundering. Everything seemed to have settled down, with Donaghy cooperating with federal investigators and awaiting his sentence. What prompted these developments in the middle of the NBA Finals?

Donaghy's sentencing is scheduled for July 14. He faces a maximum of 25 years in prison for conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce. In the usual course of presentence investigations and procedures, the federal probation department asks the "victim" about the damage resulting from the crime. As a "victim" of Donaghy's crimes, the NBA claimed in a June 5 letter that it was entitled to $1 million in restitution from Donaghy. Restitution, or the reimbursement of the victim's losses, typically pays back a bank or a charity for money lost in an embezzlement or a theft. Donaghy obviously damaged the NBA and its reputation, but there is no indication he stole any money from the league. The NBA claimed that it was forced to spend the nice round sum of $1 million investigating Donaghy and the damage he caused, and the league wants its money back. Clearly enraged by the unexpected demand from the NBA for $1 million, Donaghy and Lauro retaliated with detailed accusations of manipulation by other referees. It is the worst nightmare for the NBA, which might be considering a withdrawal of its demand for restitution.

Are Donaghy's allegations of referee misconduct new? How serious are his charges?

Donaghy first began telling the FBI about other referees in July 2007. He gave federal investigators additional information in a meeting in September. His claims are serious. They include allegations that the NBA attempted to insulate star players from technical fouls to build up ticket sales and television ratings. Most seriously, he claims there was a successful effort by two referees to extend a playoff series to a seventh game, assisting in the victory for the team that trailed 3-2 in the series. The accusations are the kinds of things that fuel conspiracy theories that abound among NBA fans, but Donaghy is now adding dates, places and games. According to Donaghy and Lauro, two referees in 2002 deliberately ignored fouls that resulted in injuries and called "made-up fouls" to give addition foul shots to one team. Even worse, Donaghy asserts that the referees did all of it because they were "company men" who "always act[ed] in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series."

Is it legal for Donaghy to go public with these charges?

Most paperwork in a presentence investigation in federal court is impounded. It is filed in secret and is available only to the judge, the lawyers and the probation department. The NBA's letter demanding restitution, for example, was filed in secret. But in a clever use of federal rules and procedures, Lauro filed Donaghy's explosive assertions in a public letter. The purpose of the letter, Lauro said, was to provide "a summary of Tim's cooperation" with the FBI. But its real purpose appears to be to fire back at the NBA after its demand for $1 million in restitution. As a cooperating witness admitting guilt and showing contrition, Donaghy was well on his way to a reduced sentence. Then the NBA makes its demand for $1 million. If Donaghy cannot make restitution, his jail sentence could be extended. Donaghy's plans for a reduced sentence were suddenly in jeopardy as a result of the NBA's demand. If Donaghy were to do additional time in prison, he could get even by pulling the curtain back on multiple episodes of alleged misconduct by NBA executives, owners and referees.

Will Donaghy's charges result in other investigations and other charges against other referees or anyone else?

The charges against Donaghy were the result of his gambling and his use of his position to manipulate games for gamblers. There is no claim of any gambling by anyone in the charges Donaghy made Tuesday. If his claims are true, they clearly show misconduct that could result in NBA discipline, but they might not be federal crimes. Because the games Donaghy describes occurred in various cities around the U.S., there might be more than one set of prosecutors looking into his accusations. The first sign that any of these potential investigations is under way will come July 14. If Donaghy's sentencing is postponed, it will be a clear sign that other investigations are under way on his claims.

What is the next step in the case against Donaghy?

Donaghy's attorneys want to see all the NBA's records of its investigation into Donaghy. The NBA investigation, according to Donaghy's court papers, included interviews of 57 NBA referees. Donaghy and his attorneys have asked a federal judge in Brooklyn to give them a subpoena for all NBA records resulting from the investigative efforts. The NBA claims the investigation cost $1 million, but Donaghy wants proof. Lauro argues that the investigation also was directed at other referees and other situations that did not involve Donaghy and that Donaghy should not be required to make restitution for that portion of the investigation. U.S. District Court Judge Carol Amon will decide whether Donaghy can go through the NBA's records.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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