NEW YORK – Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison Tuesday for setting off a gambling scandal that tarnished the league’s reputation and raised questions about the integrity of its officiating.
The sentencing in Brooklyn federal court culminated a case that hung over the league throughout the season and even into the NBA finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. League commissioner David Stern has repeatedly denied Donaghy’s claim that corruption among referees goes beyond him.
Donaghy’s lawyer had asked the judge for probation. Donaghy had faced up to 33 months in prison, but the judge gave him credit for his cooperation.
Folding his arms but showing no other emotion, the 41-year-old Donaghy apologized to the court. “I brought shame on myself and my family,” he said.
Donaghy pleaded guilty last August to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce for taking payoffs from a professional gambler for inside tips on games.
“By having this nonpublic information, I was in a unique position to predict the outcome of NBA games,” he told a judge at the time.
Donaghy didn’t stop there: In June, he marred the NBA finals by making fresh accusations that the league routinely encouraged refs to ring up bogus fouls to manipulate results but discouraged them from calling technical fouls on star players to keep them in games and protect ticket sales and television ratings.
The allegations – contained in court papers arguing that Donaghy deserved leniency for voluntarily disclosing the alleged corruption – included one instance claiming referees rigged a 2002 playoff series to force it to a revenue-boosting seventh game.
Though the papers didn’t name the teams involved, only the Los Angeles Lakers-Sacramento Kings series went to seven games during those playoffs. The Lakers went on to win the championship.
Both Stern and the league’s officials have said Donaghy made the claims to get a lighter sentence.
“We anticipate that the judge’s sentencing decision, together with the changes we have made to our referee operations staff, will enable us to continue with the improvements we are making to our anti-gambling rules, policies and procedures,” Stern said Tuesday.
“There is little comfort to be gained from the mandatory prison sentence, especially as it affects Mr. Donaghy’s children and their mother, but hopefully the healing process can begin in earnest for all.”
The NBA has made a number of changes to its officiating program in the wake of the scandal. Former Army Gen. Ron Johnson was hired as senior vice president of referee operations, Bernie Fryer and Joe Borgia were promoted to new management positions and the league reassigned Ronnie Nunn, who had been the director of officials for five years.
Last week, two of Donaghy’s former high school classmates were sentenced to over a year in prison for their roles in the scheme.
James Battista, a professional gambler and admitted drug addict, got 15 months in prison for making bets based on inside tips. Thomas Martino, the scheme’s middleman, was sentenced to a year and one day for paying the referee thousands of dollars for the tips. The three men attended school together in Springfield, Pa.
The league had demanded nearly $1.4 million in restitution. But the judge last week set the restitution at $217,266, to be paid jointly by the three defendants.
“Though we believe no sentence would ever be able to repair or justify the damage caused by this criminal and scoundrel, we are glad to finally put this behind us,” said Lamell McMorris, spokesperson for the National Basketball Referees Association.
“Tim acted in a completely selfish and unforgivable way, and has forever compromised the way people look at sports and officiating. However, NBA referees will continue to officiate with the highest level of integrity and professionalism.”