Battista pleads in Donaghy betting case

It all started in Philly.

In December 2006, then-NBA referee Tim Donaghy and a couple of buddies from Cardinal O'Hara High met at Philadelphia International Airport's Marriott Hotel and launched a scheme to make some extra money.

That was the scenario laid out yesterday for a Brooklyn, N.Y., judge by Jimmy "Baba" Battista, a Phoenixville gambler who admitted to placing bets based on Donaghy's inside knowledge of the game.

"He was just getting helpful information," Battista's lawyer, Jack McMahon, said afterward.

"That's what bettors do. They look for information," he said. "That's not defrauding the NBA."

The third man involved in the betting ring, Thomas Martino, 42, of Marcus Hook, pleaded guilty to wire fraud last week and is facing 12 to 18 months in prison. He admitted to relaying basketball "picks" from Donaghy to Battista and delivering money to the referee when the picks hit.

The feds reportedly learned of the scheme last year while investigating the Gambino crime family.

Donaghy, a Havertown native who resigned in July after 13 years as an NBA ref, pleaded guilty the following month to gambling and wire-fraud charges. He faces up to 25 years in prison but could get a much lighter term at sentencing next month.

Battista, 43, also known as "Sheep," held out until the last minute - and it appears to have paid off. He was planning to go to trial on gambling and wire-fraud charges until Wednesday night, when federal prosecutors sweetened the pot by taking the latter charge off the table, McMahon said.

"He admitted to doing what he did, but he wasn't going to be forced into admitting something he didn't do," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Goldberg declined to comment on the deal.

Battista faces 10 to 16 months in prison at his July sentencing. McMahon said Battista is a "family guy" who is willing to pay the price for engaging in illegal gambling, but "it's not the crime of the century."

"I think he's an excellent candidate for probation," McMahon said. *

The Associated Press contributed to this report.