The Joy of Six: sports executives who paid for their crimes in prison

Front office sports figures whose transgressions led them to prison form an exclusive club – one that may soon grow in the wake of Fifa scandals

Last week Christopher Correa, scouting director of the St Louis Cardinals, was found guilty of cyber crimes and sent to prison for 46 months. Yet he’s hardly the first sports executive who fell afoul of the law. Here a look at six of the chief offenders.

1) Bernard Tapie

He’s a former pop star and actor, who once owned Adidas, who once oversaw a cycling team, drove race cars and was a politician, one endorsed by then French president François Mitterrand. Most of all, Bernard Tapie is a once-bankrupt business tycoon who is seemingly never far from a spotlight.

This summer, the 72-year-old finds himself at the center of an ongoing political scandal involving IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, but that’s not why he’s on our list of infamous sports higher-ups. The larger-than-life flamboyant French figure makes the cut because of transgressions committed during his ownership of one of European soccer’s crown jewels, Olympique Marseille.

Just six weeks after some 50,000 Marseille supporters watched their heroes win France’s first and only European title with a 1-0 upset of AC Milan in May 1993, L’affaire OM broke out in earnest, rocking both club and country.

It was alleged that Tapie sought to pay off certain Valenciennes players, whom Marseille would face on 20 May in Ligue 1, six days before the Champions League final. Why would Tapie take such risks in a mostly meaningless domestic tie? So his OM players could have an easy match before facing AC Milan. Tapie put the scheme in motion from his yacht, instructing general manager Jean-Pierre Bernes and OM midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie to offer cash to several in the Valenciennes side in exchange for laying down for OM.

Eydelie would write in his 2006 book that Tapie told him that ‘it is imperative that you get in touch with your former Nantes team-mates at Valenciennes (there were two). We don’t want them acting like idiots and breaking us before the final with Milan. Do you know them well?’

The three Valenciennes players were Jacques Glassmann, Jorge Burruchaga and Christophe Robert: detectives would later dig up 250,000 francs, roughly £30,000, in the garden of Robert’s aunt. “That money stank so much that I threw it in a hole” said Robert.

Glassman was the whistleblower, seen by many as a traitor, and eventually picked up a gig on La Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Burruchaga and Robert were handed suspended six-month sentences and Eydelie received a one-year sentence. Bernes got a two-year suspended sentence and a $3,000 fine.

Tapie was protected due to his parliamentary immunity, that is, until it was voted away by MP’s thanks to Tapie’s alleged role in a separate case. In 1995, Tapie was sentenced to one year in prison, later appealed down to eight months, and an additional one-year suspended term. Meanwhile, OM were stripped of their domestic title, banned from defending their European title, and relegated to the second division.

2) John Spano

John Spano, in October of 1996, the “new owner” of the New York Islanders.
John Spano, in October 1996, the “new owner” of the New York Islanders. Photograph: J Giamundo/Getty Images

We look in the mirror and see the very same person, every single day of our lives. We don’t get to choose the very basics of who we are, where we came from and, for the most part, what we look like. In short, there’s no escaping ourselves. What we can control is exactly who people perceive us to be, that is, depending on the lengths we’re willing to go to convince them. John Spano was willing to go far, extremely far, in scamming his way into control of the NHL’s New York Islanders in 1997.

The Islanders were struggling, a shadow of the franchise that won a startling 19 consecutive playoff series en route to bringing four Stanley Cup championships to the eastern suburbs of New York City. Enter John Spano, a hero charged with saving the organization from a possible move out of their Uniondale home.

Spano was a small business owner from Texas who told John Pickett, the then-Isles owner, that he was worth $230m. That number was significantly more than the reality: Spano was worth roughly $5m. Spano, who had tried to buy two other NHL franchises prior, agreed to buy the team and it’s TV package for $165m, and the sale process began.

Meanwhile, in the months leading up to the closing, Spano had operating control of the franchise, sat in the owners’ box and made real live hockey decisions, including forcing then-head coach and general manager Mike Milbury to leave the bench in favor of Rick Bowness.

Incredibly, Spano secured an $80m loan from Fleet Bank in Boston, a process Spano called easier than getting his first auto loan of $12,000. Problems began when Spano couldn’t secure the balance, with the fraudster buying time by presenting a different set of facts to various parties partaking in the closing.

“I set it up so other people couldn’t talk to other people, or they didn’t have enough knowledge to put two and two together,” Spano said in the fascinating documentary Big Shot. “The guy at the bank knew one thing. The guy at the NHL knew another. My attorney knew something else. If they would have all got together, they would have realized something wasn’t right.”

With funds due, Spano would send wire transfers missing several zeros: his $17m transfer was sent for $1,700, providing the appearance of an innocent mistake. Except none of it was an accident, and eventually Spano’s scheme unraveled entirely, embarrassing the Islanders organization and the NHL which reportedly spent under $1,000 investigating Spano during the process.

Spano was sentenced to 71 months in prison on four counts of fraud, ordered to undergo psychiatric and drug counseling and to pay $11.9m in restitution.

3) Christopher Correa

Chris Correa, the former director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals, should have probably stuck to using his phone to communicate.
Chris Correa, the former director of scouting for the St Louis Cardinals, should have probably stuck to using his phone to communicate. Photograph: Bob Levey/AP

On Tuesday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called on Russia to hack the email of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. If only it were the Russians who hacked into the proprietary database of the Houston Astros, St Louis Cardinals fans might feel a bit better about their own cyber crime situation. Instead, it was one of their own, former scouting director Christopher Correa, who was found guilty of the transgression.

When the news broke in June 2015 that the Cardinals were the subject of an FBI investigation, the key figure was Jeff Luhnow, the current Astros GM and a former Cardinals executive who headed up their scouting and player development from 1994 to 2012. The sabermetrically inclined Luhhow, who built computer networks for both franchises, was a large piece of the Cards winning puzzle, building up the treasure trove of talent that has been part of St Louis’ success over the years.

Investigators didn’t find enough evidence to charge higher ups such as current senior vice president and general manager John Mozeliak, but Correa faced a trial, and pled guilty to to five counts of unauthorized access to computer information. According to a statement of charges from the US Attorney’s Office, Correa:

  • downloaded an Excel file containing a list of every player eligible for the 2013 draft and how Astros scouts ranked them.
  • viewed the Astros’ internal draft page during the draft
  • viewed internal notes on trade talks with other organizations, scouting reports on would-be draft picks and read evaluations of international players the Astros were looking at

Correa was sentenced to 46 months in prison. Meanwhile, the Cardinals await the conclusion of MLB’s investigation, which may or may not punish the franchise for the transgression.

4) Brian Hillier

Then Swindon chairman Brian Hillier leaving an FA disciplinary commission, where he was banned from the game for six months for breaking the FA’s betting rules. Hillier’s reign brought highs and lows to the club.
Then Swindon chairman Brian Hillier leaving an FA disciplinary commission, where he was banned from the game for six months for breaking the FA’s betting rules. Hillier’s reign brought highs and lows to the club. Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

A lifelong fan of fourth-division Swindon Town FC, Brian Hillier rose to the rank of chairman in 1984. Two seasons later, following his appointment of renowned Manchester United and Scotland international striker Lou Macari as player-manager, Swindon bagged a then-record 102 points to earn a place the third division. In 1987 Swindon were promoted again. In 1990 the Wiltshire side finished fourth, defeating Sunderland in the play-offs to complete their meteoric climb to the top flight in just five seasons. However, they did so as clouds of despair gathered around the club.

Those five seasons were arguably the most successful Swindon have enjoyed to date, but those glory years were marred by gambling allegations, under-the-table cash deals and dishonest management engaging in fraud.

In November 1989, two months after The People revealed that Hillier had bet on his team to win the third division title, the newspaper then accused both Macari and Hillier of betting £6,500 against their own team before a fourth-round FA Cup tie with Newcastle. Swindon lost 5-0. Macari was eventually fined by the FA £1,000 and was forced to resign as manager of his next club West Ham United. Hillier was fined £4,000, and left the club after receiving a six-month ban from football.

The worst was yet to come. Charges of illegal payments to players on top of their contracts, including cash for homes, cars, win bonuses and promotions, were revealed, again by The People, with Hillier, Macari and part-time bookkeeper Vince Farrar all under fire.

Hillier, Macari, captain Colin Calderwood and Farrar were arrested before the final match of the 1990 season (Calderwood was not charged), distractions that would not prevent them from beating Sunderland in the decinding play-off match and making club history. Ten days after the season, the FA sent Swindon to the third division following an investigation that revealed 35 illegal player payments. An appeal reduced the penalty allowing Swindon to start the season in division two.

Two years later, Hillier found himself at Winchester Crown Court where he was sentenced to a year of incarceration for circumventing Inland Revenue in making those illegal payments. His sentence was later appealed and cut to six months, but his banishment from football would be increased to three years.

5) Alan Eagleson

Ex-hockey czar Alan Eagleson, left, pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud.
Ex-hockey czar Alan Eagleson, left, pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud. Photograph: Reuters

For more than two decades, Alan Eagleson held an iron grip on the sport of hockey and was one of the most influential people in Canada, making his spectacular fall from grace all the more remarkable.

Eagleson was the first ever head of the NHL Players’ Association and was somehow still permitted to represent players as an agent at the very same time. He created the Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, one of the most captivating events the sport has known. Eagleson’s international encore was co-organizing the influential Canada Cup which ran on five occasions.

Eagleson was the strongest power broker in hockey when Russ Conway of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune began writing a series of investigative pieces about the hockey czar. Tales of deceit and corruption were based on the accounts and questions of NHL players present and past, including Bobby Orr, with whom Eagleson famously fell out in 1980 after a contract negotiation led to Hall-of-Fame defenseman leaving Boston for Chicago. In the end, Conway’s accounts were joined by other investigations carried out in The Globe and Mail, alleging frauds that included the pinching of pension funds, insurance claims and the siphoning off of international tournament profits away from the players and towards himself.

In 1994 a Boston grand jury indicted him on 32 counts of fraud, racketeering and embezzlement, that after players such as Wayne Gretzky, Orr and Bobby Clarke testified against him. Eagleson fought off extradition to the United States and four years later, eventually landed a plea deal that would allow him to serve a sentence in Canada. Eagleson was convicted of mail fraud and fined $700,000 in the US, and pleased guilty to three charges of fraud in Canada during July 1988, handed an 18-month sentence of which he served six months. The case helped 1,343 players get pension money back according to Conway.

The disgraced Eagleson would resign under pressure from the Hockey Hall of Fame, was disbarred by Ontario’s Law Society of Upper Canada and was removed from the Order of Canada.

6) Samuel Richardson

Derbyshire County Cricket Ground in 1981, over 90 years after Derbyshire CCC was nearly run into the ground by its administrator Samuel Richardson.
Derbyshire County Cricket Ground in 1981, over 90 years after Derbyshire CCC was nearly run into the ground by its administrator Samuel Richardson. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

And finally, we conclude with the one who got away.

Samuel Richardson was a retired right-handed batsman for Derbyshire County Cricket Club who became its administrator in 1890. With the club leaking money, Fred Spofforth, an Australian who was the first bowler to take 50 test wickets, helped identify Richardson as the fraudster behind the loss of £1,000, and a host of financial irregularities surrounding the club. Rather than face the music, Richardson admitted his guilt and quickly fled to Spain, never to return. He was rumored to find a new job in the court of King Alfonso XIII, the royal who put the “real” into Real Madrid. Richardson died in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War. At the time he was the longest surviving member of the very first Derbyshire CCC first-class side.