Aug. 04, 1997
Aug. 04, 1997

Table of Contents
Aug. 4, 1997

College Basketball


In retrospect it's apt that Michael Rudman first met John Spano
on Halloween night, for that's when nobody is quite as he appears.

This is an article from the Aug. 4, 1997 issue Original Layout

Rudman, a longtime New York Islanders fan and habitue of the
skyboxes in Nassau Coliseum, took an instant liking to Spano,
the Dallas businessman who was negotiating to buy the
floundering team from owner John Pickett last year. Rudman
appreciated how Spano would invite him into his box and ask
advice. "He was like someone who'd been given a new toy and was
having fun with it," Rudman says. "He was on a big high. He was
flying his private jet back and forth from Dallas, and he talked
about how much he was spending on fuel."

Over the ensuing months Rudman continued to see Spano plying the
pile of the owner's box. But soon after the NHL's Board of
Governors unanimously approved the sale on Feb. 24, Rudman began
to notice a change in Spano. "He was a little less friendly,"
Rudman recalls. "The last time I saw him was on April 9, when
the team played Montreal. He didn't seem to be as relaxed as he
had been. He seemed to be far away, in another world."

He had good reason to be. Two days earlier Spano had apparently
closed the $165 million deal to buy the team. He handed over $80
million, secured through a loan from Fleet Bank, with no
problem. Spano was also supposed to give Pickett $16.8 million,
the first installment for the cable TV rights that made up the
$85 million balance of the agreement. Only he didn't--and
Pickett, to his everlasting regret, chose not to postpone the
closing. Instead he took Spano's word that he and his lawyers
had instructed Lloyds Bank in London to wire the funds,
supposedly withdrawn from a trust set up for Spano by a late
relative, and that the payment was on the way.

Pickett would never, to adapt a phrase, be shown the money.

On July 17 federal authorities charged Spano with bank and wire
fraud, citing among other things a letter from Lloyds signed by
a senior vice president named Clive Jones in the trust
department confirming the existence of a $107 million trust. The
bank claims that it does not employ anyone by that name in that
position. If the story laid out by the feds is correct, the look
Rudman saw on Spano's face at that Islanders-Canadiens game
betrayed what Spano must have by then come to realize: His run
as ubiquitous ingratiator and brazen joyrider, as Forrest Gump
and Ferris Bueller rolled into one, was coming to an end.

On July 21 authorities appearing at Spano's Dallas home and
office with a warrant for his arrest came away empty-handed
because he was in the Cayman Islands, and for a fleeting moment
it looked as if the sports world might have its answer to
fugitive financier Robert Vesco. But the 33-year-old Spano
surrendered to authorities on Long Island two days later, and at
Spano's arraignment Joseph Conway, an assistant U.S. attorney
for the Eastern District of New York, outlined what he called "a
tangled web of lies and broken promises" that Spano had spun,
using fudged faxes and claims of assets. Conway said his office
will seek a conviction that would likely land Spano in prison
for at least three years. Spano wasn't required to enter a plea
at the arraignment, but his lawyer, Nicholas Gravante Jr., said
Spano intends to plead not guilty to all charges.

Back on Halloween night, as the Islanders were losing 5-3 to the
hapless Toronto Maple Leafs, many of the 7,719 fans in the
half-empty Coliseum began chanting, "Help us, Spano!" For the
more than three months that Spano actually owned the Islanders,
he blew into town on corporate jets, conveyed himself in
chauffeured limousines and bivouacked in sumptuous hotel suites.
General manager Mike Milbury spoke excitedly about spending
Spano's millions on free agents.

His new station in sports was of a piece with his apparent
profile in the business world. To hear Spano tell it, the
leasing business he owned, Bison Group, encompassed a worldwide
empire of 10 companies and more than 6,000 employees. He and his
wife, Shelby, lived in a paid-in-full, $3 million Tudor home in
Dallas's tony University Park, and Spano also owned a house in
the Hamptons. He didn't own just a Learjet; he had a Gulfstream,
too. "I've owned every great car that was ever made," Spano told
SI as recently as July 20. "I have the houses and everything
else. I felt I was experienced enough to be able to take [a
hockey team] head on."

Spano's multimillionaire image began to erode under the scrutiny
of Newsday, which in a series of stories last month put the lie
to many of his claims to wealth. Turns out that the jets were
chartered, possibly with the Islanders' money. Turns out that
property records in the Hamptons show no evidence of a house
belonging to anyone named John Spano. Turns out that Spano not
only carries a $1.8 million mortgage on his Dallas home but is
also $85,000 in arrears on property taxes and only three weeks
ago bounced a check written to cover that amount. Further, any
person who believed that Spano headed up a multinational
conglomerate worth millions was being buffaloed: At Spano's
arraignment, when U.S. magistrate Judge Viktor Pohorelsky tried
to identify assets that the defendant could pledge against his
$3 million bail, Gravante told the court that Bison Group held
"nothing appreciable" in value. Spano posted bail on Monday
using his Dallas home and his parents' and his sister's homes as

Meanwhile, last Friday the NHL said that Pickett worked out an
arrangement with Fleet to repay the $80 million loan and now
will try to find another buyer.

Spano appears to have grown up comfortably, not extravagantly,
first on Manhattan's Upper East Side--he claims to have played
peewee hockey in Central Park--and, when he reached his teens,
in rural Madison, Ohio, near where his father, John, managed a
small business.

After graduating from St. John's High in nearby Ashtabula and
then, in 1986, from Pittsburgh's Duquesne University with a
degree in business administration, Spano took a succession of
modest-paying sales jobs in Pittsburgh and Dallas. Nothing would
seem to account for his claim of accumulating a net worth in the
nine figures, all within six years of establishing Bison Group
in 1990. Spano says much of his wealth comes from that
mysterious trust, which he has described as part of an
inheritance from his grandfather "Angelo"; exhaustive research
by Newsday into Spano's background, however, turned up no
wealthy ancestors and no grandfather named Angelo.

Denis Potvin, the former Islanders defenseman whom Spano had
befriended and reportedly had hoped to make president of the
team, says in hindsight that one thing about Spano had troubled
him: "If he had that stature, why didn't he have staff working
with him? He seemed to work very much alone."

During a six-month period in 1995 Spano flirted with buying a
half interest in the Dallas Stars, becoming a regular around the
Stars offices. But he was always coming up with an excuse to
keep from closing the deal, remembers Stars president Jim Lites.
"The excuses were laughable," Lites says. "One time he called
and said he couldn't close without a copy of the operating
agreement with the Kalamazoo [Mich.] Wings, our minor league
affiliate. Then it became 'My partners in South Africa have to
come in and meet everybody.' One guy showed up and 'cheerioed'
us for a whole day. I can laugh now, even if it didn't make any

"Usually con guys have the whole suave thing going," adds Lites.
"You know--fast lane, wife with fake breasts, the whole thing.
John Spano is 33 but seems more like a 60-year-old. He's the
most dour young man you'll ever meet. His wife is smart,
clean-cut, hardly a bimbo. He didn't seem flamboyant enough to
be a con artist."

But if the charges are true, there was at least one telltale
sign. "I've been running teams for 15 years," says Lites, who
was vice president of the Detroit Red Wings from 1985 to '93,
"and one thing that always happens when you go to a restaurant
with an owner of a pro sports team is that he picks up the
check. Out to dinner with [Red Wings owner] Mike Ilitch, you'd
have to shoot him to get the bill out of his hand. [Dallas
Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones, same way, even if it was dinner for
1,000 people. John Spano is the only prospective sports owner I
ever saw who wanted you to pick up the check."

As president of The Staubach Company, former Cowboys great Roger
Staubach's Dallas-based real-estate firm, Jim Leslie went in on
several deals with Spano, including one as a would-be partner in
that never-consummated purchase of a stake in the Stars. Leslie
says that Spano owes him and several partners more than $1
million for a loan they granted in April in exchange for the
rights to be master developer of a new arena for the Islanders.
"Had we known about his bad-faith dealings with Pickett, we
wouldn't have done the loan," Leslie says. "But by the time we
gave him our money, he had purportedly been checked out by both
the NHL and the banks." Gravante refused to comment on those or
any other specific allegations.

Bob Gutkowski, a sports-marketing executive whose New York-based
Marquee Group did consulting work for the Islanders at Spano's
request, also became suspicious when $20,000 owed his company by
Spano never arrived. "He'd talk a good game," says Gutkowski.
"You'd ask him, 'John, are you sure you have the money to do
this?' And he'd become indignant and say something like 'I have
a private plane. Of course I have the money. Why would I be
having this conversation if I didn't?'"

Such persuasive bluffing enabled Spano to be taken seriously
when, after striking out with the Stars, he made a play for the
Florida Panthers in May 1996. His bid failed when Panthers owner
Wayne Huizenga decided not to sell the team, but Spano continued
to impress NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who in April called
him "the type of person we want as an owner." Said Bettman last
week when reminded of that remark, "To say that I'm as unhappy
about this as you can be is an understatement."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Spano rose to the defense of Bettman
when the commissioner began to feel the heat over the botched
Islanders sale. "The league and the banks did an enormous amount
of due diligence on me," Spano told SI three days before turning
himself in.

Voodoo diligence, more likely. According to the government's
complaint, Joseph Lynch, a senior vice president at the Dallas
branch of Comerica Bank, sent Pickett a letter last November
certifying Spano's net worth to be more than $100 million. Lynch
told prosecutors that letter simply reflected financial
statements supplied to him by Spano that were never
independently verified.

In early 1997 the government's complaint also states, Spano
asked Dallas attorney T. McCullough Strother to administer
Spano's trust, and identified him as the trustee. In financial
records provided to the banks, Spano claimed the trust was
valued at $107 million, which in turn could have led Fleet to
take Spano at his word that he was worth $230 million and
therefore a suitable candidate for the $80 million loan.
Strother told prosecutors he never actually confirmed the
existence of the funds because Spano wouldn't document them.

Then there was the monetary wild goose loosed in the aftermath
of the April 7 closing of the Islanders' sale. "There were 30
ways Spano said he went about trying to pay Pickett that
installment," says a source. On one occasion, another source
says, Spano blamed an IRA bomb threat in the London Underground
for holding up the payment. Still another time Spano cited a
fire at the office from which the funds were to be sent.

Then Spano caught a case of the decimal-point yips. In early May
he wired Pickett $5,000 instead of the $5 million he had
promised. On June 5 a $17 million check (for the $16.8 million
payment plus interest) from Spano bounced. Finally, late in the
afternoon of June 17, Spano called Pickett to pass along the
wire-reference number for the $17 million payment due that day.
When Pickett came in the next morning, he found that Spano had
sent $1,700. "With all the people watching and waiting for that
payment, that was the end of the game," says yet another source.

The feints and misrepresentations outlined above make up some of
the government's charges. The remainder include these allegations:

--Spano twice forged documents to keep his creditors at bay. A
June 8 letter on Comerica Bank stationery claims that Spano had
the funds to cover the $17 million bounced check. But a Comerica
Bank executive over whose name that letter went out denies
writing it, and prosecutors, calling the document an "obvious
forgery," describe the fax machine markings at its top as
"virtually identical" to those of a fax machine owned by Bison
Group. Further, on May 22 Spano allegedly took a fax sent to him
by his brokerage firm, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, and altered
it to make it appear as if the firm was vouching for his having
$27 million in treasury bills.

--During his three months in control of the Islanders, Spano
collected at least $120,000 in management fees and spent about
$220,000 from the team's operating budget. If it's determined
that Spano fraudulently took title to the team, those expenses
would be considered fraudulent too.

Not part of the federal case, but in keeping with the absurdist
character of the tale, are the allegations regarding Spano's
relationship with Lenco Holdings, Ltd., a South Africa-based
firm that manufactures cookware and employs Douglas de Jager,
the gentleman whom Lites remembers "cheerioing" him in 1995 when
Spano was sniffing around the Stars. According to the complaint
in a $4.5 million lawsuit Lenco filed against Spano in Dallas in
June, Spano entered into a partnership with Lenco in '94 to sell
the company's pots and pans in the U.S. Last January, Spano sent
his partners evidence that he had finally made a strike: a
purchase order for 270 sets of stainless-steel cookware from
Nordstrom, the department store chain. Lenco promptly shipped
nearly $2 million worth of pots and pans.

There was only one problem: Nordstrom doesn't carry pots and
pans. According to a spokesperson for the chain, the department
code indicated on the purchase order, which is now an exhibit in
the lawsuit, is for women's coats. Nevertheless, Spano allegedly
borrowed against the cookware venture to secure a loan of at
least $1 million from Comerica Bank, which now wants to seize
the pots and pans.

In his interview with SI, Spano wouldn't be specific about
anything--from the source of his assets to his motives in
issuing rubber checks and misplacing decimal points. But he did
say that in March and April, as he prepared to close on the
Islanders sale, he faced a "significant" capital call
(SCORECARD, July 28) and a note that came due. "I had to step up
and pay," he said. "Timing wasn't good. I had hoped to then
regroup and resolve my issue with [Pickett]. It had the ability
to get resolved. I want to make that clear."

Spano says that any "ability" to resolve his purchase of the
Islanders evaporated when Pickett, exasperated, appealed to the
NHL office to intervene in the sale and word of that request
leaked to the press. "That made it impossible to settle," Spano
told SI, "because my reputation went from savior to devil."

Listening to Spano and reviewing his actions, one wonders if
there is any financial pickle he'd admit to having no "ability
to resolve." If he had deluded the bank, Pickett and the NHL,
why wouldn't he delude himself?

Chief among the issues to be sorted out in courtrooms over the
coming months is how someone could buy a pro sports franchise
with a check that is forever in the mail. "The guy claimed he
was rich and from New York, and the Islanders needed a buyer,"
says an executive with a major league baseball team, who insists
that the chances of a similar scam occurring in his sport are
remote. "I think the NHL was desperate to have this work out."

"Forget Gary Bettman allowing the transfer of a troubled
franchise to [the wrong] guy," says Lites. "How about Fleet
Bank? They wrote checks for $80 million. Figure that out.
They're the ones with egg on their faces." Fleet Bank says it
relied on the Islanders' assets in making the loan.

In any case the Spano affair has given those who run pro sports
a powerful cautionary tale. As for the rest of us, we're left
with a moral to go with "No man is an island": Any man can buy
the Islanders.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN GIAMUNDO/BENNETT STUDIOSSpano's joy after agreeing to buy the Islanders last November turned to despair last week when federal authorities arrested him. [John Spano holding New York Islanders jersey]COLOR PHOTO: DOUG KANTER/AP [See caption above--John Spano]COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER "Forget Bettman [above]. How about Fleet Bank? They're the ones with egg on their faces." [Gary Bettman]COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT/BENNETT STUDIOS For one payment Spano was supposed to wire Pickett (above) $17 million, but instead he sent only $1,700. [John Pickett]