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Stern calls referee's gambling case `isolated'

NBA commissioner says he doesn't think probe of Donaghy involves other league employees.

July 25, 2007|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

NBA Commissioner David Stern said Tuesday the federal investigation of referee Tim Donaghy's alleged gambling on games that he worked was the result of a "rogue, isolated criminal."

Donaghy, 40, is being investigated by FBI agents in New York for allegedly gambling and providing inside information to gambling associates on games he refereed, plus other league games.

At a news conference in New York, Stern somberly discussed the scandal that has shaken the league's integrity. The commissioner said he learned of the probe June 20 when the FBI informed the league that it was investigating an NBA referee who reportedly was gambling on games. After learning more, Stern wanted to fire Donaghy but investigators said it would hurt the probe.

"If you bet on a game, you lose the benefit of the doubt," Stern said.

Donaghy, a 13-year veteran referee, resigned from the NBA July 9.

Stern had watched a German soccer officiating scandal, and said he worked diligently to install protections in the NBA that would prevent a scandal such as this.

When Stern learned of the breach, he said, "My reaction was, 'I can't believe it's happening to us.' "

Numerous reports have said Donaghy also provided gambling tips to low-level East Coast mafia figures.

Stern said he has received no information that any other NBA employees were involved in illegal gambling.

Donaghy, who lives in a Bradenton, Fla. golf course community, has not been charged with a crime, although U.S. Attorneys in New York are reportedly preparing to act on information obtained by FBI investigators.

Neither the referee nor his attorney, John Lauro, of Tampa, were available for comment Tuesday. Stern said Lauro "informed us [Donaghy] is contemplating a plea." On Sunday Donaghy received two "life-threatening phone calls," law enforcement authorities in Florida said Monday. In the later call, Donaghy reported the caller told him, "You're done. You're dead."

Stern said federal authorities are investigating Donaghy's gambling activity during the last two seasons, when the referee worked 139 regular-season games and eight playoff contests. Donaghy earned $260,000 in the 2006-07 season, he said.

Donaghy last worked in Game 3 of the second-round playoff series that pitted the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs against the Phoenix Suns in a series that some coined the de facto finals. San Antonio won Game 3 in a contest plagued by questionable calls -- some by Donaghy -- as Suns star Amare Stoudemire played only 20 minutes because of foul trouble. The game is one that various reports have questioned as a possible "fixed" game. Officials with the Suns won't comment about the Donaghy case because of a league-wide gag order, a Suns spokeswoman said.

Stern insisted there were no "especially suspicious patterns" in Donaghy's work that would have tipped off NBA security officials. He noted Donaghy's on-court performance was in the top tier of accuracy. However, Jon Campbell, a senior editor for the sports gambling website, said the rotating three-man referee crews Donaghy worked on during the last two seasons fouled out more players than any other officiating crew. Stern acknowledged that Donaghy crews "were near the top" in total fouls called.

Also, R.J. Bell, president of a betting website, said he found that big action on Donaghy-refereed games led betting lines to move 1 1/2 points or more 10 times between January and April, with the heavily betted teams covering the point spread all 10 times.

NBA games that went "over" a game's total-points-scored over/under betting line are significant, said a veteran Southern California professional gambler, who requested anonymity because of his work. "It's the [point] totals an official can control," he said. "That, you can do under the radar. That's why the bookies have lower [betting] limits on them compared to [bets on] the [point] spreads."

Stern said he has delayed an NBA investigation into any questionable games Donaghy worked until the federal case has progressed further. "I don't know the number of games [Donaghy or his associates gambled on]," Stern said. "We will have the opportunity to review Mr. Donaghy statistically and by video."

Although the commissioner said he learned of the FBI accusations against Donaghy last month, the NBA investigated the referee in January 2005 because of a civil harassment case filed against Donaghy by a neighbor in West Chester, Pa.

During their investigation, Stern said NBA security officials were told Donaghy had gambled at the casino tables of Atlantic City's Borgata Hotel. NBA employees are forbidden to gamble on anything except for a summer-season horse race, Stern said. Donaghy denied that he'd gambled in Atlantic City and "we checked every casino in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, all of our investigations came up negative," Stern said.

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