Day 661: The Long Island Snake

originally published October 22, 2013

There comes a point in most people’s lives when they realize they will most likely never make a living as a professional athlete. That’s okay, we can still become owners, right? Well, for those of us awash in a life of government drone-dom, owning the team of our dreams is also a fantasy among the unattainable. But what if we could fake it?

ESPN is airing an interesting documentary tonight as part of its 30 For 30 program, documenting the wonky exploits of a man named John Spano, who sort of owned the NHL’s New York Islanders for a brief and weird period in 1997. In Canada we don’t get ESPN, and this program isn’t airing here until Saturday, November 2nd at 11:00am, when I’ll be busy in my Lamaze class (we’re not expecting a baby – I just like practicing my breathing). So instead of setting my PVR I’ll simply hop the boards and do my own research today.

Spano’s story would be deemed too unrealistic, too implausible for that of a fictitious villain. That’s what makes it so compelling. He had balls the size of hockey helmets and sufficient knowledge of how to manipulate the system to put together a pretty slick caper. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite have the knowledge to execute the caper successfully.

Therein lies my favorite ingredient of any story – the utter absurdity.

Back in the mid-1990’s, when hockey games would periodically pause for the occasional acoustic jam by the players, the New York Islanders were a well-respected franchise. Only a few years removed from a near-miss at the Stanley Cup finals (and with the memories of four Cups in a row in the 80’s still strong), it didn’t really matter that they’d stunk up the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the past couple seasons. When owner John Pickett decided it was time to sell the club and spend the rest of his years under the Florida sun, he felt an $80 million price tag for his 90% share in the team was a fair price.

In came John Spano, owner of the Bison Group, a company which leased aircraft to whatever sort of people are in the market to lease aircraft. Spano had made a failed attempt to buy 50% of the Dallas Stars the year before, but when he offered up $165 million for Pickett’s share as well as the massive cable TV deal with SportsChannel New York, Pickett was listening.

Spano boasted about how he turned a tiny company with four employees into a squadron of ten companies with over six thousand on the payroll, each with impeccable hygiene and perfect teeth. His resume boasted a snazzy exclusive prep school in Ohio as his alma mater, a generous inheritance from his wealthy grandfather, and a net worth of about $230 million. He was a magnate, a high-roller, one of the truly highfalutin titans of the corporate world.

Except that John Spano faluted about as high as the rest of us. His legend was mostly that – a concocted fiction that represented such a miniscule smidgen of truth, it’s almost amazing how long he got away with it.

The league’s owners approved the sale in February of 1997. Before any money had changed hands, Spano had gone to work, relieving coach/GM Mike Milbury of his coaching duties and installing Rick Browness behind the bench. He tossed $2.5 million (of Pickett’s money) into the team’s payroll and announced a forthcoming aggressive free agency campaign. He was the new owner. He just needed to sign a few checks and make it official.

When the Islanders were represented by two men from the Pickett regime at the annual meeting of the Board of Governors in June, the league began to get suspicious. They discovered that Pickett had so far only extracted $26,200 from Spano for the cable deal. Once, Spano had wired $5000 when he had promised to wire five million. Then he sent a $17 million check that bounced. No worries, he’d cover it… but no, he only sent $1700. Those zeros can be tough to figure out if math isn’t your first language, I suppose. Pickett, whose Boca Raton hideaway was gathering dust in his absence, asked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to mediate.

Bettman ordered Spano to turn over his keys to the Islanders’ executive washroom until the matter could be sorted out. Luckily for Bettman, he didn’t need to do much digging; Newsday had already taken care of the leg-work, and on July 9, they broke the story to the public.

John Spano was not only a fraud, but he was a world-class dink.

First off, Spano’s net worth was a paltry $5 million. Nice to have in the bank, but it’s not going to earn you a major sports franchise. Also, Bison Group had not exploded into ten companies – it was a single company with 22 employees. That posh prep school was actually a small, un-noteworthy Catholic school just outside Cleveland. Also, both his grandfathers – while I’m sure they were great guys – were securely among the middle-class. He also owed $85,000 in back taxes on his home.

But wait – things get stranger. Spano was being sued by a South African cookware company called Lenco Holdings. Spano had brokered a deal to have Lenco’s products sold in Nordstrom stores. He’d used this venture to snag a $1 million loan from Comerica, his bank. Except the deal was totally bogus, which should have been obvious since Nordstrom has never sold cookware. The department code on the fraudulent Nordstrom purchase order was for women’s coats.

(not the same thing, though you could fry an egg on how hot this Via Spiga double-breasted wool blend military coat is.)

The NHL had spent between $525 and $750 to check out Spano’s credentials before the purchase, compared to the roughly $30,000 other leagues spend to vet potential owners. Spano was charged with bank fraud, wire fraud and forgery. He fled to the Cayman Islands, but soon returned to the US to face the heat. He pleaded guilty. In 1999 his wife divorced him, and Spano was arrested again for passing $10,000 in bad checks and wire transfers to his new landlord in Philadelphia. This guy’s criminal mind couldn’t help him get away with jaywalking.

He was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison, and ordered to pay restitution of $3.4 million to the Islanders, $4.4 million to two Dallas businesses, and $1.25 million to Mario Lemieux, because dammit, everyone needs to throw a little sugar Super Mario’s way.

The NHL still couldn’t get the hang of checking out its owners though. Buffalo Sabres’ owner John Rigas had his ownership stripped in 2005 when he was arrested for fraud. The Nashville Predators’ owner was found to have fraudulently obtained over $100 million in loans from two other owners and eight banks to make his purchase.

You know, maybe I will PVR that special on John Spano. It’ll probably be more wild than any fiction-based episode on TV that day.

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