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DeBartolo Strikes a Deal

Jurisprudence: Outcast 49er owner is optimistic that plea-bargain agreement in alleged extortion scheme will clear way for regaining control of team.

October 07, 1998|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Now that he has pleaded guilty to failing to report an alleged extortion scheme, outcast San Francisco 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo wants his team back.

He's going to have to be patient, because it could be months before he finds out.

Already removed from club operations for nearly a year while under investigation in a tangled Louisiana gambling fraud probe, DeBartolo moved toward closure with Tuesday's plea bargain. He has promised to cooperate with federal prosecutors, and in court his lawyer portrayed him as a victim in the alleged scam.

DeBartolo said he's eager to regain control of the team but conceded he has little say in the matter, which will be decided by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

"That's not in our hands," he said after entering the plea in federal court in Baton Rouge, La.

Also riding on the outcome could be the team's proposed $525 million combination stadium-shopping mall project to replace aging 3Com Park, which has been on shaky ground because of concerns over rising costs, and the team's future in San Francisco because of the muddled ownership picture.

Tagliabue took no immediate action to lift DeBartolo's banishment. He said management control of the 49ers and oversight of the proposed stadium project would remain with DeBartolo's sister, Denise DeBartolo York, and club President Larry Thrailkill through at least the 1998 season.

"Eddie DeBartolo's plea agreement announced in Baton Rouge is an important step toward resolving the government's investigation into his activities in Louisiana," Tagliabue said in a statement. "Until our office is able to complete a thorough review of today's agreement and related matters, I have directed Mr. DeBartolo to continue his current inactive status with respect to both the affairs of the 49ers and the NFL."

DeBartolo said his attorney plans to meet with NFL officials and then he plans to see them as well. No timetable was announced.

DeBartolo ceded control of the team to his sister last December, when he became a target in a probe into an influence-peddling scheme involving the awarding of a riverboat casino license. DeBartolo and his sister each retain a 45% ownership stake in the team.

"On a personal level, I know that this has been, and continues to be, a very difficult time for my brother," Mrs. York said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with him, his wife and children."

She added her brother's plea would have no bearing on the current operation of the 49ers.

"We have a great team and strong management in place," she said. "We remain committed to the uninterrupted success of both the San Francisco 49ers and the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp."

Team officials declined to comment.

San Francisco safety Tim McDonald said the players remain supportive of DeBartolo.

"We wish him the best and hope he can come back," he said.

DeBartolo reportedly claims he was coerced into giving $400,000 to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards for his help in securing the license. He pleaded guilty to a felony--failing to report the alleged extortion--and was fined $1 million and put on probation. He also has agreed to testify against Edwards, who has not been charged but remains under investigation.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DeBartolo Case at a Glance

Key developments in the federal investigation of San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. and former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards:

* March 12, 1997--Edwards receives $400,000 in cash from DeBartolo. At the time, DeBartolo was seeking a license for a riverboat casino in Bossier City. Edwards says the payment was a legitimate transaction for lobbying.

* March 14, 1997--Regulators grant a casino license to the DeBartolo Entertainment/Hollywood Casino Corp. partnership.

* April 28, 1997--FBI agents raid Edwards' home, law office and safe deposit box, seizing documents on dealings with riverboat casinos and other matters and more than $400,000 in cash.

* June 3, 1997--Edwards appears before a grand jury. Later, DeBartolo appears and afterward withdraws from the Bossier City riverboat casino project.

* November 1997--Target letters--informing recipients they are the target of federal investigators--go out to Edwards, his son, DeBartolo and others.

* Dec. 2, 1997--DeBartolo resigns as 49ers chairman and turns management control over to his sister.

* Feb. 4, 1998--Federal investigators return $400,000 to Edwards rather than reveal their evidence against him. A week later, Edwards returns most of the money to DeBartolo.

* Sept. 24, 1998--DeBartolo testifies before grand jury, apparently cementing a deal with prosecutors in which he will plead guilty to a minor crime and be fined but escape jail time in exchange for his testimony.

* Oct. 6, 1998--DeBartolo pleads guilty to failing to report an alleged extortion scheme involving Edwards. DeBartolo is placed on probation, assessed $1 million in penalties and agrees to cooperate in any future trials of the former governor and his son stemming from an investigation of their roles in the state's riverboat casino industry.

--Associated Press

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