Former ref admits gambling addiction, pleads guilty to two felonies

John Lauro, the attorney for Tim Donaghy, walks away after meeting with the media.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - If the first step to overcoming an addiction is recognizing you're an addict, Tim Donaghy had something of a breakthrough yesterday in Brooklyn federal court.

Appearing before Judge Carol B. Amon, the former NBA referee acknowledged that he suffers from a gambling addiction and pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to commit wire fraud and transmit gambling information across state lines.

In doing so, he went from a top-tier ref who followed in his father's footsteps to a two-time felon who has disgraced his profession.

Donaghy, 40, faces a maximum 25 years imprisonment and $500,000 in fines for providing confidential NBA information to bettors in exchange for kickbacks that prosecutors said ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per game.

It is unclear exactly how much Donaghy earned through the scheme. However, as part of yesterday's agreement, he forfeited $30,000 to the government, money prosecutors say he obtained through the gambling operation. That would seem to be a small take for a man who earned $260,000 a year as a referee and lived in a $1.35 million home in Bradenton, Fla.

After weeks of speculation, the Cardinal O'Hara High and Villanova graduate spoke firsthand about how he traded information for cash. It was a relatively simple scam.

James "Baba'' Battista, 42, of Phoenixville, and Thomas Martino, 41, of Marcus Hook, also were charged yesterday for their alleged role in the operation, though they did not enter a plea. The three men attended O'Hara at the same time in the early 1980s.

"As a referee, I was given access to master referee schedules that included the identities of officiating crews for particular games. This information was confidential and not available to the general public,'' Donaghy told the judge. "I also was aware of the manner in which officials interacted with players and called games as well as the conditions of players prior to a game.

"By having this non-public information, I was in a unique position to predict the outcome of NBA games.''

And make some money at the same time.

Starting in December, Donaghy said he hooked up with other gamblers and began predicting which teams would win games and cover the point spread. He said he would call in the "picks'' to be placed with bookmakers, often using "coded language.''

When his teams won, Donaghy got paid.

"I received cash payments for successful picks but would not lose any money if a pick did not win and cover the point spread,'' he said. "Some of my picks included games I had been assigned to referee.''

Other professional gamblers eventually discovered what was happening. So did the FBI, when they heard Donaghy's name mentioned in wiretaps involving the Gambino crime family in New York.

U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said in a statement that the case "demonstrates the corrupting allure of easy money.'' The assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York field office, Mark Mershon, ripped Donaghy for undermining "everyone's faith in the integrity'' of professional sports.

Donaghy, who told the judge he is taking antidepressants and receiving pyschiatric treatment, was shielded from the media horde that began assembling outside the Brooklyn courthouse at 7 a.m. and had grown into a 30-yard gauntlet by early afternoon. He was shuttled into and out of the building through a back door while reporters gathered at the main entrance.

His attorney, John Lauro, said Donaghy had no comment, but was "relieved'' to have pleaded guilty.

"He expresses a great deal of remorse and concern about the pain that he's caused his family, his friends and his co-workers,'' Lauro said, blaming his client's transgressions solely on his gambling addiction.

"I think he's had a severe gambling problem for a while that went untreated and unfortunately he didn't get the proper care that was needed,'' Lauro said. "Now he's getting that care.

"I don't think he would have been here but for the gambling problem,'' he added.

Lauro would not say whether Donaghy was cooperating in the federal investigation or whether he was offered a lesser sentence in exchange for his guilty plea. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 9, about a week into the season.

Battista and Martino were arraigned on charges of conspiring to defraud the NBA. They each face a maximum of 20 years in jail. Battista intends to plead not guilty, according to his attorney, Jack McMahon Jr. Martino's attorney, Vicki Herr, refused to say how her client would respond to the charges.

The three men are out on $250,000 bail, with travel restrictions in place. They were all required to turn in their passports.

According to the criminal complaint against Battista and Martino unsealed yesterday, Donaghy, identified as "CS-1,'' began placing bets 4 years ago on NBA games, including those he officiated.

Last December, Battista and Martino met with Donaghy and asked him to provide basketball picks in exchange for $2,000 for each correct pick, according to the complaint. The amount was soon raised to $5,000 per game.

Martino allegedly acted as the go-between for Donaghy and Battista, accepting the picks over the phone by code. Prosecutors say Martino delivered cash payments to the referee in Phoenix, Washington and Toronto until the operation ended in April.

Neither Battista nor Martino would comment yesterday outside the courthouse, where they were bombarded by photographers as they made their way back to their cars.

Court documents indicate that others were involved in the scheme, though no additional charges have been filed.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thom-as Seigel and Jeffrey Goldberg are prosecuting the case.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who has labeled Donaghy a "rogue, isolated criminal,'' promised in a statement yesterday to "continue with our ongoing and thorough review of the league's officiating program to ensure that the best possible policies and procedures are in place to protect the integrity of our game.'' *