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If There Was Another Tim Donaghy Today, Would He Be Caught?

I have spent time with referees. I have spent time reading every word of attorney Lawrence Pedowitz's Report to the NBA Board of Governors, which is the NBA's investigation into the Tim Donaghy affair.

I have spent time thinking.

And my main thought is: If there were another official doing bad things like Tim Donaghy did, would he or she get caught?

I opened the Pedowitz report with that question in mind.

Remember, the NBA had a lot of security in place before all this. At the time Tim Donaghy was busted -- thanks to a phone call from the FBI to the NBA -- the League already had some impressive-sounding gumshoe-types on their side.

Nevertheless, one of the League's known troublemakers of a referee, one who had been investigated for erratic off-court behavior before, went undetected betting on games for years and getting personal cash deliveries from those believed to be tied to the mob.

Shortly after Donaghy was caught, this is what Commissioner David Stern told us about the NBA's existing security:

We have a security department that is large. It's headed by Bernie Tolbert, the senior vice president of security, former FBI, head of the Buffalo office second in command at Philadelphia who has a background in undercover work. We have in house representatives that are from Secret Service, U.S. Army, New York Police Department, and New York State Police Investigation.

We, in addition, have a security network that includes a security representative with respect to every NBA team. Those security representatives are routinely judged and either changed as appropriate, and instructed on the ground to be listening to what goes on, what they hear, what they see, what they can observe. And those security representatives are for the most part either FBI retired, local police, in some cases DEA. And we are permitted by work rules, some of them are actually functioning in their regular capacity for local PD and working for us at the team level.

In addition to the constant communication with our security represents of what goes on in the cities, we are in continuous conversation with DEA, the FBI section on organized crime which deals with sports betting, and with the Homeland Security Department. Our security department operates rather extensively, and has actually been beefed up more recently with respect to its activities in connection with Homeland Security, which occupies since 9/11 a more substantial time, a more substantial amount of its time.

We do subject our referees to extensive security checks, to the limit provided by the law. That is to say, with their authorization each year for the past two years, we have conducted personal background checks that cover credit, bank account, litigation, civil and criminal, assets including real property, debt, you name it; if it's legal to have it, we do it. The agency that we use for that is the Arkin Group, and under the guidance of the former head of worldwide operations for the CIA.

If appropriate, we do follow up work with respect to anything that the investigation shows. And when we are curious, I guess, because we've been alerted to something, we hire appropriate investigators to look at the details.

With respect to our referees' performance, well, I guess before I get to that, let me just say, we in addition to that, as part of our concern with gambling, we have for many years retained a consultant in Las Vegas whose job it is to inform us whether there are any movements or unusual movements in betting on the NBA about which we should be concerned, and we're also in contact with the Nevada Gaming Board who monitors that for their own purposes to determine whether there has been anything that we should be concerned about or particularly aware of.

This is like the Hall of Fame of busting the bad guys. FBI, CIA, DEA, Secret Service, NYPD -- not to mention spies in Las Vegas -- if these guys had no clue about Donaghy's gambling then, who would know about it now?

Or to put it another way: If you had done a Pedowitz report in 2006, would the NBA have unearthed Donaghy before the FBI stumbled across him?

There are all kinds of inspiring changes recommended in the Pedowitz report, and sign me up among those who are optimisitic about the future of NBA refereeing. (There are also some humdinger recommendations, including the suggestion that player gambling should be curbed: "NBA players," writes Pedowitz, "are prohibited from betting on NBA games -- but the Constitution does not prohibit players from gambling at casinos or wagering with friends. Thus, for example, it is not uncommon for players to wager large sums at casino gaming tables or while playing cards with teammates. Indeed, some have commented that there is a culture of gambling among the players. We have recommended that the NBA consider new rules governing gambling by players. We believe that gambling can expose the players and the League to significant risks and therefore it is important that players be educated regarding these risks.") New organizational structure. New leaders. New systems that might one day notice suspicious patterns in play-calling. New methods of reporting suspicious activity.

But in the case of Donaghy, I don't know that there would have been anyone to report suspicous activity. If, like me, you read the full 133-page document looking for the way that Donaghy would have been caught if it all happened anew today, I think you'll find that the main solution there comes from one short and vague section on page 113:

The League has now arranged to obtain information on a regular basis from individuals and entities involved in the gambling business who can provide the League with information about unusual movements in the betting lines, rumors about things such as injury reports or referee schedules or where the "smart money is being wagered. By flagging games or individuals for the League to investigate, these monitors may help the League detect gambling or misuse of confidential information. (We note that this system has been working properly, as certain games were brought to the League's attention during the 2007-2008 season. After further review, the League determined that nothing improper had occurred.)

I think that's the real key, right? People who are up to their eyeballs in gambling every day, and know that global underworld of sports books, bookies, oddsmakers, and lines. The NBA had this before, according to the commissioner, but now the claim seems to be that it is souped up and working better than ever.

That whole world is entirely mysterious to me. But right here at TrueHoop we did talk to one such guy. Haralabos Voulgaris has made a nice living over the last several years gambling on the NBA. He's the kind of guy the NBA would presumably want to talk to about these kinds of things.

Voulgaris says he has spent an unhealthy amount of time committing his own investigation into the Donaghy affair. He has watched video, plumbed the depths of his vast proprietary database of every NBA play in the last five years, and he has talked to his contacts in the gambling industry.

I don't know that even Voulgaris thinks he could detect another cheater in real time. And he only became aware of Donaghy after the fact.

Lawrence Pedowitz interviewed every referee twice, and nearly everyone involved in refereeing in any way at all. And I believe he is genuinely satisfied that what the FBI found was real: That Donaghy was a rogue official. My only quandary is that I thought the NBA wanted to make sure that there is never another Tim Donaghy, and I'm not sure that's even possible.

I
'm also not certain that every stone has been turned over in looking for the truth of what happened here.

I am about to say something that is patently unfair to Lawrence Pedowitz, whom I do not know but understand to have a stellar reputation: I knew at the moment this investigation was announced, before the first interview was even conducted, that this report would not find that Tim Donaghy's dirty deeds actually affected the outcome of NBA games.

That was Pandora's box, and the NBA really needs that box to stay closed.

The NBA is not the kind of entity to call in the media to watch itself destroy its own credibility. If the media was being called in, as it was in the case of the Pedowitz report, the credibility would somehow or another remain intact.

But Voulgaris, for one -- the rare gambling insider who is open about such things -- thinks the league's version of events has not been believable.

From my conversation with Voulgaris in June (and a follow-up to that conversation):

You have said that the Tim Donaghy scandal shook your confidence a little bit in the integrity of the NBA. How so?
The Donaghy scandal basically made me question whether or not I wanted to continue betting the sport.

For one, after the details emerged I have heard from several people who knew about the games while this was going on.

Towards the end of Donaghy's last season I guess the information was getting passed around quite a bit. I have always insulated myself from discussing the sport with other gamblers, I pretty much go about my work, keep it to myself, and bet the sport, so I was not privy to this information.

I also try to avoid all the "it's fixed" conspiracy talk because its counter-productive to actually handicapping the games. When the news broke, though, I spent an unhealthy amount of time poring over old games Donaghy reffed and seeing how I was affected.

It was rather disturbing and it kind of turned me off to betting.

It made me question whether or not I wanted to continue betting the sport, in fact I am at a point now where I'd actually prefer to work in the sport in some other way rather than betting on it, but I'd have to find a job that paid me as much (or nearly) to make it worth my time and I am not sure if those types of opportunities are available.

What do you think about how the NBA has handled the Tim Donaghy investigation?
From a league perspective they have done a great job sweeping this scandal under the rug, and downplaying it.

I keep on reading how Donaghy "provided information" as though this was the crux of the scandal.

The guy fixed games. He didn't "provide information" he bet on games he was working, and made calls to insure he would win those bets. It's pretty basic stuff but the NBA has somehow turned the focus of the whole investigation away from this and instead focused on the "inside information" angle.

I understand what the league is trying to do, I think in this instance the truth doesn't jibe with the league's best interest. In that respect the League and the Commissioner have done a great job of downplaying the scandal.

One section of the Pedowitz report is dedicated to looking for evidence that Donaghy may have affected the outcomes of games. The report has a list of 17 suspicious games that Donaghy officiated.

When I spoke to Voulgaris in June, he volunteered four such suspicious games:

  • Lakers vs. Knicks 11/19/2003

  • Suns vs. Knicks 1/2/2006

  • Jazz vs. Magic 3/6/2006

  • Heat vs. Knicks 2/26/2007

Those were all mentioned here on ESPN.com months before the Pedowitz report was concluded in October, but only one of the four made Pedowitz's list of suspicious games. And even then Pedowitz's approach to determining if Donaghy had called things suspicously or not was to put that question to NBA employees to analyze the game tapes.

Pedowitz and his staff watched only small amounts of tape, presented by NBA staffers after their analyis was complete. Even though I could not imagine a crew less likely to find evidence that some NBA games had been fraudulent, this section of the report does includes a line about one game being potentially suspicious (12/16/2006 Detroit at New Jersey).

Then there are several paragraphs that explain, without evidence that this is what actually happened, a rationale whereby it could have made sense for Donaghy not have affected the outcomes of games. And then that section ends like this:

Given the information currently in our possession, we and the League's experts are unable to contradict the government's conclusion that "[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.

I don't know if Tim Donaghy improperly affected the outcome of games or not, but the fact that a number of NBA employees watched a short list of games, and then told Lawrence Pedowitz he didn't seem to blow any games (except maybe for that one) does not convince me that the matter is closed.

The appearance, from this report, that the matter is closed, strikes me as a little bit disingenuous.

And there were some other moments in the report that gave me the feeling Pedowitz wasn't digging as hard as he might have.

For instance, there is a question of cronyism and nepotism in the referee corps. The best case I could make that there might be such things in the hiring of referees is that there are about 60 referees at any given time. At the time the Donaghy scandal emerged, we learned that four of them went to the very same high school!

I am quite certain I could find a statistician to tell us that it's nearly impossible that you'd hire the 60 best at anything in the world and come up with four from the same high school. But Pedowitz didn't dig into that kind of stuff. Instead his section on nepotism took a glance at the four (four!) pairs of fathers and sons among NBA referees, and found that in only one case was the father consulted in the hiring of the son. The people who did the hiring told Pedowitz that nepotism played no role in the hires. And that was that. Only, there was one other thing: Pedowitz then points out the irony of Donaghy accusing the league of nepotism, when Donaghy himself had an uncle (Billy Oakes) who was an NBA referee.

So, is everyone satisfied that NBA referees have been hired strictly on the merits?

I'm no conspiracy theorist. I don't mean to demean this report or NBA referees. I suspect both are on the up and up.

But once trust is broken, I can't help but get into a "show me don't tell me" mode. This report was the NBA's attempt to show the public that their trust is rightly placed in NBA referees.

I am inclined to trust those people, because I have met several of them. But this report asked me to trust more than I wanted to -- especially in lacking real review of whether or not Donaghy affected who won and lost games. I don't feel I have been shown all that much.

Nevertheless, I think this report did represent a permanent and significant leap forward in how the NBA discusses referees publicly. How so? This report, more than any other NBA verbiage ever, makes plain as day that referees blow a lot of calls. They are human. They make mistakes.

For example, at one point, Pedowitz is going about the task of refuting an apparent allegation by Donaghy that referee Dick Bavetta's relationship with former Golden State GM Garry St. Jean may have affected a particular game. In exonerating Bavetta, Pedowitz writes:

While Bavetta called thirte
en fouls on Toronto and only three on Golden State, what we find telling -- and inconsistent with Donaghy's allegation -- is that Bavetta had seven incorrect calls, six of which favored Toronto. Thus, while Bavetta may have called more fouls in favor of Golden State, those calls were correct and what errors Bavetta made heavily favored Toronto.

Seven incorrect calls from one NBA referee in one game! And in this report, that counts as good news! This is a new day in how we talk about referees.

If that's the NBA's line, that good referees make bad mistakes sometimes, well then out of this report maybe we really are establishing common ground between NBA fans and the bigwigs of the League. This is the kind of discussion I have always wanted -- one rooted in the truth.

As for preventing the next Tim Donaghy ... keep your fingers crossed, and be glad that once-in-a-lifetime things don't happen that often.