He is an unlikely prisoner in an unlikely prison. The days go
past, into daylight saving time now, and George Toliver
contemplates his freedom. He knows everything he will do on
April 29, when he finally can leave his home. He has a schedule.
"I'll take the kids to school in the morning....
"Then I'll play a round of golf....
"Then I'll have lunch with a friend....
"Then I'll take a nap....
April 19, 1998
"Then I'll run a basketball practice for my girls' team....
"Then I'll go to an awards dinner for the team....
"Then I'll go to the movies. I want to see Titanic. I've been
hoping all along that it'll stay in the theater long enough for
me to get there. I checked the paper this morning. It's still
This is the sixth and final month of his home detention, his
sentence for tax fraud. He has been home for Halloween and home
for Thanksgiving and home for Christmas and now home for Easter.
There are worse places to be, for sure, than this tidy little
house with its tidy little lawn and its hoop in the driveway on
the outskirts of Harrisonburg, Va., surrounded by the Blue Ridge
Mountains, but a prison is a prison is a prison. This is a
47-year-old man who has spent a lot of time away from home. He
does not have much experience with confinement.
"I'd be on the road for 20, 22 days of every month," he says.
"The longest trips would be, maybe, 10 days, and I'd come back
for a couple of days and then would be gone again. Up early in
the morning. Off to the airport. Hoping the weather would be all
right, the plane would be all right."
For nine years he was an NBA referee, one of only 58 officials,
a force of justice stepping into the large arenas of the land,
trying to bring order to the chaos on the hardwood floors,
separating the charging fouls from the blocking fouls and
telling Mr. Charles Barkley to please keep quiet. He had a
whistle and a life that he loved. When the NBA called, in 1988,
he had debated whether to take the job, worrying about the
travel and the amount of work. He made dozens of those lists,
FOR on the top of one column, AGAINST on the other. The AGAINST
list always was longer. The for sometimes had only one entry: I
love to referee basketball. That was enough.
He treated the job almost as if it were a religious calling. He
didn't smoke, didn't drink. He was the straightest piece of
string in the Shenandoah Valley. Ask anyone. He didn't even tell
stories, those banquet chestnuts that begin, "It was a cold
night in Milwaukee, and Shaquille O'Neal says to me...." Stories
would have meant memory. He didn't want memory. He wanted each
game to be separate, each call made with an open mind.
In Harrisonburg he was known as a good citizen and a good
neighbor. He operated the George Toliver Basketball Officiating
School for referees in the summer. He was a member of the Hall
of Fame at nearby James Madison University, where he had been
the basketball captain and a 1,000-point scorer. A divorced dad,
he shared custody of his two daughters--Carli, now 16, and
Kristi, now 11--and coached them in the Harrisonburg Heat girls'
basketball program, which he had founded. He was a local
celebrity, available to help with local causes.
"Here's the thing," he says, sitting at the dining room table
where he ate breakfast this morning with his daughters. "I'm the
same person now that I was before. I'm the same person I've been
for 47 years. That hasn't changed. To anyone who's open-minded,
rational, who I can talk to...it's very clear that George
Toliver ain't no crook. I had a full plate, and something
slipped through the cracks, and that was a mistake. But I ain't
He speaks with quiet passion. His frustration fills the room,
fills the house, the way it has for six months--hell, almost for
three years. How could this happen? Home detention allows him to
go to work every day, but his job is gone. He is not an NBA
referee anymore. He referees some kids' games for money--little
kids, 10 and 11 years old--at a local gym. He is also paid to go
over to James Madison sometimes, look at videotape of Colonial
Athletic Association games and critique the officials'
performance for the league. He comes home. Those are the rules.
He pretty much is on the honor system, no ankle bracelet, only
occasional calls from his probation officer, but his life is
still lived within imposed boundaries. This is still punishment.
He sometimes thinks he is caught in someone else's life. How
could this happen? The bell of a colonial-style clock sounds in
the den. One more hour has passed.
A small gold cross, a stud, is in the lobe of his left ear. He
says he had the ear pierced at a Harrisonburg mall and inserted
the earring on Oct. 25, 1997, the day after he was sentenced in
"It's like you're driving with a bald tire," Toliver says,
trying to begin at the beginning. "A police officer pulls you
over and tells you that you have the bald tire. You say, 'Gee, I
didn't even notice that. I'll take it right to the garage and
get it fixed.' The officer shakes his head: 'Uh-uh. That's not
good enough. That's not an option.' Where do you go from there?"
The bald tire, in Toliver's case, was unreported income. He
downgraded first-class or full-fare coach plane tickets paid for
by the NBA and pocketed the difference without reporting that
income on his tax return. To the Internal Revenue Service, his
crime was more like driving a stolen car than driving with a
bald tire. By early 1994, in a criminal investigation of tax
fraud, the IRS had targeted Toliver and a number of other NBA
referees who had also made money by downgrading plane tickets
purchased by the league.
In late summer of that year, two IRS investigators appeared at
Toliver's front door, wanting to ask him some questions. The
visit did not surprise him. There had been rumors among NBA
referees that the IRS was on the prowl, that the great
bureaucratic beast had turned its head and focused on the refs'
downgrading income. Toliver says he wasn't worried. Plane
tickets? How bad could a problem with plane tickets be? He
disregarded the agents' customary warning about his right to
have an attorney present and asked the men into his house. He
wanted to know what the deal was.
The IRS was investigating what it saw as a systematic attempt to
evade income taxes. The NBA referees, according to their
contract, were entitled to first-class tickets for all flights
longer than two hours and full-fare coach tickets for all other
flights. They also were entitled to trade in those tickets for
cheaper ones and keep the difference. Referees had been doing
this downgrading since 1983. It was one of the perks of the job,
a bonus to a salary that, in Toliver's case, grew from the
$70,000 range to six figures during the early 1990s. That bonus
had gotten bigger and bigger with the advent of bargain fares
that followed airline deregulation and of frequent flier miles,
which sometimes made tickets free.
What was not part of the contract--what was, in fact,
illegal--was hiding this extra income from the IRS.
Investigators had found irregularities in a number of referees'
tax returns. Receipts were being subpoenaed from airlines and
travel offices, and records were being searched at the NBA
offices. Questionable figures had been found in Toliver's
returns from the years 1989 to '94. That was what the
investigators had come to his house to ask about.
"So I said, 'I owe more money?'" Toliver says. "'Let's set up a
meeting with my accountant. We'll see what he says and what you
say, and if I owe the money, I'll write a check.'"
"It's too late for that," one of the IRS agents replied. "That
is not an option."
This was when the dialogue stopped. Toliver said he had better
call his lawyer, and he showed the agents to the door. Then he
went to the Yellow Pages to find out who his lawyer might be. He
didn't have one. He didn't even know there were different kinds
of lawyers. He wound up calling lawyers who kept referring him
to other lawyers.
Toliver's life had changed in a moment. He was off on a strange
year-and-a-half stretch of keeping his mouth shut, of doing his
job, working in filled arenas, waiting for some kind of Wile E.
Coyote anvil to be dropped on his head.
In October 1995 he received a letter that said he was the
subject of a grand jury investigation. He was invited to speak
to investigators and to appear before the grand jury. His
lawyer, Guy Harbert, told him not to accept either invitation.
Harbert, a tax attorney in Roanoke, would talk with the
prosecutors about any possible deal. All Toliver could do,
really, was wait.
A bunch of other referees also were under investigation--15? 20?
More? Nobody knew for sure--and they too had lawyers who told
them to keep quiet. They were also waiting for the anvil to
fall. It was the oddest way to live. All these people were
feeling the same threat. Everyone was keeping quiet.
"I never stopped thinking about the case," Toliver says. "I'd
wake up, I'd start thinking about it. I'd go to bed, I'd lie
awake thinking about it. I'd eat dinner with my daughters, I'd
think about it. The only place I could let it go was on the
floor. The games were a relief. I could go out there and focus
for two hours and forget."
Basketball was a refuge. Basketball was a friend. This
friendship had begun long ago, when Toliver was growing up in
the tiny town of King George, in the middle of Virginia, the
youngest son of a Baptist preacher, a rural kid with no other
playmates but a ball and a hoop that had appeared under the tree
one Christmas morning. In his driveway he faced the best players
in the world, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson,
and they were all pretty good, but he was always one basket
Basketball took him to James Madison. Basketball found him a
job. Basketball was the oldest of all old friends. Basketball
"I had stayed at JMU after college, first as an assistant coach
and then with the recreation office, running the intramural
programs," Toliver says. "I was at the gym one day in 1976 when
a guy asked me to ride with him to Staunton [Va.] for a meeting.
I didn't have anything to do, so I went. It turned out to be a
referees' meeting. I listened to all the talk, and at the end a
guy came around, collecting dues. The dues were five dollars. He
came to me. I said, 'If I give you five dollars, does that mean
I'm a referee?' He said it did, so I gave him the five bucks.
"I went out and bought a striped shirt and a whistle and started
working in the Industrial League. The Loading Dock against the
Engineers. Games like that. That's how it all started." Toliver
remained in his job at James Madison as he worked his way from
local rec leagues to big-time college games and headed toward
On Feb. 12, 1997, an indictment was handed down by the U.S.
District Court for the Western District of Virginia charging him
with three counts of tax fraud. The NBA immediately suspended
him, with pay, pending the outcome of his trial.
Basketball was gone.
"The indictment was almost a relief," Toliver says. "Not being
able to talk to anyone had been terrible. I'd been so
introverted for so long, carrying all this around, and finally I
could let it out."
The night before the indictment he told his two daughters about
the news that would arrive in the morning. He also told the
assembled members of his girls' basketball team, told his
friends, told anyone he could think of telling. He said, again
and again, that he was the same person he always had been, that
he was the person they knew, not the person who would be
described in the newspapers. He was heartened by the responses,
especially from his children. People seemed to understand.
"George is a guy I'd hire again tomorrow if I could," says Dean
Ehlers, the retired athletic director at James Madison. "I had
the privilege of being his coach and then his boss for a long
time, and he was just an outstanding person. He was dedicated to
the game of basketball, dedicated to everything he's done."
"He was the driving force behind girls' basketball around here,"
says Henry Morris, the president of the Harrisonburg Heat. "If
it weren't for George, the program wouldn't exist. He's the guy
who started everything. He's always been a straight shooter."
Another NBA referee, Hank Armstrong, also a nine-year veteran,
was indicted in Norfolk on the same day as Toliver. Mike Mathis,
a 21-year veteran and the president of the National Association
of Basketball Referees (NABR), the refs' union, was indicted a
week later, in Cincinnati. A fourth referee, Jess Kersey, a
24-year veteran, was indicted two months after that in Norfolk.
With the playoffs approaching and rumors rampant that many more
referees were under investigation, the NBA girded for the
possibility that indictments would land everywhere and that
there would be a severe shortage of officials to finish the
And then the indictments stopped. Just like that. Only the four
referees had been charged, three of them in federal courts in
Virginia, which seemed to be an odd coincidence.
"Tax cases vary around the country," one Eastern tax attorney
says. "The things that are prosecuted in some areas of the
country won't be prosecuted in other parts. If these guys lived
in the Northeast, for example, I think they would have been able
to settle. Where they live, the South, that's where everything
seems to go to court."
"I never have understood the geographical nature of these
cases," says Harbert. "Maybe it's because of our proximity to
Washington, D.C., and the Department of Justice, and they can
bring down some lawyers. I don't know. I stopped trying to
figure it out."
One fact that was certain was that the referees' high profile
did not help them. The sight of the enforcers of basketball law
being prosecuted for breaking federal tax law was guaranteed to
draw notice. Each indictment was mentioned on countless sports
broadcasts, reported in countless newspapers. The timing of the
Kersey indictment in particular, just one day before the April
15 tax deadline, seemed part of the production. Beware, Mr. John
Q. Public: This could be you if you get a little slippery on
those Form 1040s.
"There are very few criminal tax investigators who work for the
IRS," Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Mountcastle, one of two
prosecutors in Toliver's trial, explains. "Only a small number
of cases get prosecuted. If we have the resources to prosecute,
say, 200 cases a year out of a pool of 5,000, we'll select the
ones that have the greatest deterrent effect on people filing
their own taxes."
Toliver's trial began on July 28, 1997. He was the first referee
to go before a jury. He was convinced he would be found
innocent. His defense mainly was that he had been confused by
the byzantine arrangements for reporting income from downgrading
to the NBA, arrangements that had changed and changed again and
that provide three reporting options under the current contract.
The tax law also had changed since he began working as a referee.
"The NBA rule book is 57 pages long, and could fit in your back
pocket," Harbert says. "George knew every word of it. The
changing regulations for reporting expenses to the NBA...you'd
just about fit them in the back of my pickup truck. He didn't
know what was going on there." In fact, the NBA's procedures for
reporting income from downgrading and the NABR's recommendations
to its members all fit onto a few typewritten pages.
Central to the prosecution's case were what it called "bogus
receipts" that Toliver had obtained from a Harrisonburg travel
agency for first-class and full-fare coach tickets that he never
used. Toliver had the agency find him the cheapest available
fares for his NBA-issued itinerary, but he sent the league
office only the inflated receipts for reimbursement.
Harbert's contention was that Toliver had sent the higher-priced
receipts to the NBA because he thought that was what the league
wanted. But the guidelines spelled out in several league and
NABR memorandums to referees dating back to at least 1991 seem
clear on that point: "It should be evident that...only coach
ticket receipts should be submitted, unless first class air
travel is actually used," reads one '91 NABR memo. The memos
also leave no doubt that referees were supposed to pay taxes on
income from downgrading. Fred Slaughter, then head of the NABR,
warned in a 1990 memo on general expenses, "Unless a referee has
the midlife vacation wishes of Al Capone, I urge each of you not
to try to get cute with your receipts."
The prosecution presented many of these documents, including a
1993 memo from the NBA stating that referees were to send the
league not only the receipts for the flights they actually took,
but also a declaration of how much money they had earned by
downgrading--a declaration the NBA needed to calculate the
income of each ref that it would report to the IRS. Harbert said
that Toliver somehow missed that memorandum, perhaps because he
was going through his divorce at the time in addition to
The trial moved along, one day, two days, three days. Harbert
was hopeful. He liked the jury all right. He was satisfied with
the way the testimony was going. The Harrisonburg travel agent
testified that a number of other clients in other businesses
asked for the "bogus receipts" for accounting purposes. To be
acquitted, Harbert thought, Toliver would have to testify in the
end, and the jury would have to believe him, especially about
missing that 1993 memo. Harbert thought this was definitely
possible. Toliver was less hopeful.
He had never been involved in a court case like this. He had
never heard people talk about him the way the prosecutors were
talking. He listened harder than he ever listened to anything in
his life. Who was this person the prosecutors were describing?
They were using his name. Was that supposed to be him? His
airline tickets were being shown on an overhead projector, the
prosecutor showing how he had made at least $988, tax-free, from
three flights on one road trip. The government's evidence showed
that he had failed to report $38,335 in income from downgrading
tickets between 1992 and '94.
Toliver, who would face as much as a $250,000 fine and up to
three years in prison if convicted, listened and thought more
and more about the possibility of jail time, about missing Carli
and Kristi. He would miss a chunk of their development.
"It was really something," he says. "You just don't know until
you're in that room. You go to court and you say, 'It's a layup.
If I make a layup, I'm O.K. No problem. I can make a layup.'
You're there for a while and you say, 'Uh-oh, it's more like a
foul shot. Can I make a foul shot? I think I can.' Then, all of
a sudden, it's a three-pointer. 'Can I make a three-pointer? One
three-pointer to stay out of jail?'"
On July 30, in Norfolk, Kersey pleaded guilty before his trial
started. At a hearing a week earlier, U.S. District Court Judge
Robert G. Doumar had "strongly" advised Kersey to enter such a
plea, saying that a jury probably wouldn't believe his defense
that he didn't know he was supposed to pay taxes on his
unreported earnings. Kersey had listened to the judge's advice.
To avoid jail time Kersey agreed to help in other prosecutions.
He entered his plea on the third day of Toliver's trial. At 11
o'clock that night, Harbert was informed that Kersey would
testify against Toliver the next day. What would Kersey say? Who
knew? At the very least, judging from the statement he made as
part of his plea agreement, he would testify that a number of
referees had handled their tickets the same way that Toliver had
and that they had known exactly what they were doing.
The statement suggested collusion among many of the league's
referees, pointing out that "about 15" had used the same South
Carolina travel office to create the phony ticket receipts they
sent to the NBA. Kersey had also admitted that he had talked
with other referees about the best way to conceal extra income.
That made the referees' tax mess seem like one of those "Psssst,
here's what you do on your expenses" cases in which everyone was
knowingly involved. Harbert didn't buy that. Not as a
description of his client.
"George isn't like that," the lawyer says. "He's a loner, goes
his own way. He had this wacky accounting system. Before a
season started, he took all his expenses for the year out of the
bank, then distributed the money in whatever number of envelopes
he needed, one envelope for each month of the season. When each
month came, he opened a new envelope. I asked him where he had
gotten that idea. He said he thought it up when he was 11 years
old. He was putting money in envelopes on Christmas for June,
when he knew he would need it to buy a new baseball or something
like that. That's the way he is."
Nevertheless, Harbert says he was extremely concerned about the
sudden addition of this new witness, although he thought Toliver
still had a shot at acquittal. Toliver was not so sure. He
thought and thought, his pessimism from the three days of trial
growing even stronger, and decided not to take a chance. The
next day he also pleaded guilty.
"The most important thing to me is that when I go to bed at
night, I sleep 10 feet away from my daughters," he said. "I
didn't want to be behind a wall somewhere while they were
growing up. I didn't want to roll the dice."
On July 31 he pleaded guilty to one count of tax fraud. The NBA
immediately terminated his contract but gave him a year of
severance pay that qualified him for an NBA pension. On Oct. 24
he was sentenced to six months of home detention, two years of
probation and 100 hours of community service, and he was ordered
to pay $10,733.80 in restitution and $20,520.32 in court costs.
He went home with his daughters.
"I still don't understand why the IRS went after this guy,"
Harbert says. "I don't know why he wasn't allowed to just pay
whatever he owed in the beginning. It would have saved a lot of
time, a lot of money. This is a good guy. Is there someone
somewhere who is rejoicing in all this, who's saying, 'Yeah, I
got George Toliver,' putting a notch on the wall or something?
Is that what it's about? If it is, it's sick."
"If you compare him to defendants in other kinds of criminal
cases, drug cases and guns and murders, sure he's a different
sort of guy," assistant attorney Mountcastle says. "If you
compare him, though, to the cases I see, criminal tax cases,
he's no different. That's usually what white-collar crime is:
well-spoken, usually successful people who do something wrong.
You can talk about extra punishment, losing his job, but that's
what usually happens in these cases. Most of these people
usually lose their jobs. A lot of them go to jail."
The other two indicted referees, Armstrong and Mathis, pleaded
guilty without trials. Armstrong was sentenced to probation on
April 2 in an emotional hearing in Norfolk at which a former
mayor, the founder of a supermarket chain, a golf pro, a Navy
chaplain and a newspaper sports editor were among the witnesses
who spoke about his good character. Even the prosecutor,
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Metcalf, called Armstrong's case
"a Greek tragedy." Mathis, a civic figure in Cincinnati who has
been operating a home for foster children in addition to working
as a referee, will be sentenced in the next few weeks.
A source close to the investigation says that 14 referees have
settled their cases with the IRS out of court, but a number of
referees remain under investigation. They still are on the job
and still live in fear of the falling anvil. They do what
Toliver did: They work their games, then go back to their hotel
rooms and worry. There are always rumors that something is going
to happen--everyone was wondering if the IRS would make another
big splash before April 15--but no more indictments have come
down. The lawyers tell their clients to keep quiet and wait.
"Everything is speculation," says Darell Garretson, the
supervisor of NBA officials. "It drives you up a wall. I'm sure
that these guys don't go a day without thinking about their
situation. I think they use the basketball floor as a haven, a
place to get away from it all."
"The pressure is agonizing," says one veteran referee still
under investigation. "It's something you can't get away from.
It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
"I'll tell you one thing," one U.S. Justice Department official
says. "I'll bet the referees in the NBA have the cleanest tax
returns in the country these days."
The NBA has said little about the situation. The referees
arguably are the league's most solid citizens, their honesty
checked and double-checked and checked again before they work
even one game. Although the league has shown some sympathy, its
rule so far has been that indictment means suspension, a guilty
plea means termination. The referees under investigation will be
allowed to continue working, and even the terminated referees
might be allowed to return someday. "Termination isn't
necessarily permanent," says NBA vice president Russ Granik. "I
don't know what the end result will be, but right now
termination isn't permanent."
This is George Toliver's great hope. Can he come back? He
crosses his fingers at the thought. He works out four days a
week, an hour and a half on the exercise bike in the morning
followed by jumpers in the driveway. His weight is the same as
it was during an NBA season, 172 pounds. He is ready to go. He
still watches videotapes of games, analyzing his old colleagues'
"I've got to be a referee somewhere," he says. "That's what I've
spent my lifetime doing. The NBA? I'd be there in a minute. If
that doesn't work out.... I did some work in China, teaching
officials over there. I've worked in a number of countries. I'd
like to be a supervisor of officials sometime. That's a goal."
His legal troubles are not over. His criminal case, including
legal fees, cost him more than $100,000. Because he pleaded
guilty in criminal court, he is vulnerable to civil penalties
and giant interest charges on the money he owed. He could face
liens on his house and cars. Another set of lawyers is working
on this problem.
He still does not understand why all of this could not have been
settled in the beginning. What was the point? He would have paid
the money. He watches the nightly news and sees a succession of
people walking away from a succession of situations. There goes
Bill Clinton (again). There goes the nanny in Boston. There
goes...Oprah in Texas. There go gunmen and thieves. Who's
guilty? The NBA referees. For airline tickets.
"To hold those referees criminally responsible for their actions
is unconscionable," says Howard Pearl, attorney for the NABR.
"This is really a civil matter. NBA referees are very attractive
to the government. They're very high-profile people, but
individually they're powerless. If the IRS goes after Microsoft,
for instance, they know they'll be going to war."
The war is pretty much done for Toliver. Finished. He is trying
to move forward. "A lot of guys say a lot of things to you when
you're working a game," the unlikely prisoner, the straightest
string in the Shenandoah Valley, says from his unlikely prison.
"I try to use common sense when I think about giving them a
technical foul. I say, if this is for the betterment of the
game, O.K., I give the foul. If this is not for the betterment
of the game? I probably just let it go."
This was never an option in his case. This was a different game
with different referees.