Lucchino in San Diego: “Are the Padres Married to the Mob?”

Wednesday, April 12, 2017
REPRINT, San Diego Reader, Matt Potter

Larry Lucchino, now the leader of the PawSox ownership group was equally as controversial when he led the effort to build a new park in San Diego. Matt Potter of the San Diego Reader wrote the following article about the complex background of Lucchino back in 2000. Thank you to the San Diego Reader for permission to reprint the article.

Are the Padres Married to the Mob?

The Lucchino-Emmett connection

By Matt Potter, Jan. 27, 2000

To its fans, the world of professional baseball is a dreamland where grown-ups can live out their childhood fantasies, tracking batting averages and swapping stories about heroic home runs. Behind the curtain is a more brutal place, a rough-and-tumble venue where billions of dollars change hands each year. For the most part, these machinations remain unseen by the public. Since baseball teams are privately owned, they do not have to disclose much about the way they operate, whom they hire, and how much money they make. Players and their agents vie for millions in contracts; owners wheel and deal for taxpayer-financed stadiums; sponsors arrange endorsements; and bookies lay odds on the World Series -- all determined behind the closed doors of executive suites. The men who own the teams are drawn from America's well-connected, men who have a direct line to the media, which deflects inquiries into how the sport does business.

Lucchino, who Emmett says once dated Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver, approached her father R. Sargent Shriver and his son Bobby and discussed putting a deal together for the Orioles.

On occasion, however, sordid aspects of the sport seep into public consciousness, mostly when players get careless with their taxes. Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Duke Snider were forced to pleaded guilty in 1995 to federal income tax evasion. They failed to report millions of dollars derived from the autograph-signing and memorabilia circuit, a business largely transacted in cash that some estimate at a billion dollars a year or more. In 1995, Yankee great Darryl Strawberry pleaded guilty to failing to report some $350,000 of autograph and memorabilia income he'd raked in over a four-year period. He paid a fine and served six months of home confinement.

In July 1990, Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose, banned from baseball for life for betting on Reds games, was sentenced to five months in federal prison and fined $50,000 for failing to pay taxes on $350,000 of income he'd made at baseball card shows, personal memorabilia sales, and through gambling from 1984 to 1987. "I really have no excuses, because it's all my fault," Rose told the judge before sentencing. Blaming his problems on his addiction to gambling, he continued, "I have been able to stop gambling. But I will need help for the rest of my life. I have a sickness."

However egregious Rose's transgressions, some feel that he has been made a scapegoat for baseball's owners and its corporate sponsors, agents, and attorneys. Corruption connected to the sport of baseball, they say, is broader and goes much higher than the few players the IRS has corralled.

Especially these days -- with team owners hungering for larger and better stadiums financed by taxpayers -- the practice of trading cash and other favors for political influence has become commonplace. Campaign contributions and gifts to public officials are de rigueur. San Diego Padres owners John Moores has given thousands of dollars to campaigns of San Diego city councilmembers and county supervisors. He has furnished them with extravagant gifts, such as dinners, drinks, flowers, and World Series albums stuffed with player autographs. Autographs are coveted because they're easy to store, can be quickly sold for cash, and their value is negotiable. "If you are going to set out to bribe somebody, they're much, much better than cash," says a local sports-merchandise broker.

In an October 1999 incident, planning commissioner Geralda "Gerri" Stryker, who had cochaired Moores's 1998 "Yes on C" pro-stadium campaign, reported getting a series of gifts less than a year before from John Moores and his wife Becky. The gifts included a "Two-Volume Book on Lane Field," a "Commemorative Wine Bottle," and a "'98 Player Photo Album." Other recipients of the gifts had estimated their value exceeded $300; one claimed that the autographs alone were worth "thousands of dollars." If true, that would have barred Stryker from voting on the Moores stadium proposal. But the Office of City Attorney Casey Gwinn (who in 1999 reported collecting at least $1800 in campaign contributions from Moores and Moores's family members) allowed Stryker to cast the decisive vote to approve the plan.

"If the fair-market value [of the gifts] is difficult to ascertain," Gwinn's office opined in a letter dated December 29, 1999, "then the value is to be determined by the cost of the donor. If this value is unknown, then the recipient shall make a good faith and reasonable approximation [of the gifts' value]. Based on our investigation, we do not have credible evidence establishing that Ms. Stryker's valuations of the three gifts were not a reasonable approximation. By law, she therefore lacks a financial interest in [the ballpark project] because she has not been the recipient of gifts in excess of $300 from any donor, specifically Mr. Moores."

Not surprisingly, most elected officials have been on Moores's side in the battle over whether to hike the cost of the downtown baseball stadium.

Gwinn has assisted Moores in other ways. In May 1999, citizen activist Mel Shapiro complained to the city clerk that Moores and Padres co-owner Larry Lucchino appeared to be violating the city's influence-peddling law by failing to file lobbying statements disclosing gifts and dinners they had bestowed during their meetings with public officials. Gwinn opined that "Mr. Moores and Mr. Lucchino are exempted from the registration requirements because they have been negotiating a written agreement following the selection of the San Diego Padres as party to a contract with the city." The city council, following Gwinn's advice, later changed the wording of the lobbying law to make it more difficult for private citizens to file complaints such as Shapiro's. Today, Shapiro says, the law "has been gutted — now they don't have to report at all."

Much of baseball's biggest action is in a game called "sports marketing," the selling of everything from autographs to player endorsements to billboard space on the stadium scoreboard. Everyone wants a slice of the golden pie. The legal troubles of Padre slugger Tony Gwynn and his wife Alicia epitomize the big-money contracts and hanky-panky. In a complaint filed in San Diego Superior Court last month, Gwynn and Alicia charge that the powerful San Diego law firm of Seltzer, Caplan, Wilkins and McMahon provided them with bad legal advice in defending against and then settling at enormous cost a series of lawsuits filed by, among others, Japanese baseball star Hideo Nomo. (Nomo and another player alleged that the Gwynn operation had cheated them out of licensing money.)

The Gwynns — who own a sports-marketing company called Gwynn Sport, Inc., dealing in sports memorabilia — claim Seltzer, Caplan tricked them into attending an autograph-signing party at the law firm. "Upon discovering that [Seltzer, Caplan] was using the reception 'in his honor' for nothing more than an opportunity to trade off his goodwill and to give his appearance to clients," Gwynn wanted to leave the party. But the complaint says he decided to stay and sign baseballs and T-shirts "in order to avoid any possibility of negative publicity for his employer (the San Diego Padres), the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation, and himself."

Gwynn claims that the law firm failed to pay for its sponsorship of a golf tournament he put on to benefit his charitable foundation. "To add insult to injury, [Seltzer, Caplan] claimed it did not have any obligation to honor its pledge to the TAG foundation or to pay its promised sponsorship because it was throwing a party in honor of Tony Gwynn and the party had gone over budget."

The battle for sponsorship is competitive. In the case of the Padres, sponsors with less than stellar reputations have become closely involved with the team. An example is the pair of entrepreneurs behind Metabolife, a diet-drug maker that has reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Padres sponsorship fees as well as giving $50,000 to the 1998 pro-stadium campaign. Michael Ellis, who founded Metabolife while on probation for a 1988 federal conviction stemming from methamphetamine-making in Rancho Santa Fe, fought a long but unsuccessful legal fight to keep his criminal case sealed. When it was opened in November, it and related civil cases revealed that Ellis and his friend and codefendant Michael Blevins (who allegedly dealt marijuana and cocaine for 20 years) were allegedly promoting real-estate deals on Otay Mesa done with cash the government said was from Blevins's drug trade. Blevins, who served three years in prison on the methamphetamine rap, and who a government agent claimed was once an associate of reputed Chicago mob boss Sam Sarcinelli, is also a founding partner of Metabolife.

As a private company, the Moores partnership that owns the Padres is not required to disclose its sponsorship or other financial arrangements; the Union-Tribune reported in May 1999 that Metabolife "is closely associated with the ball club and is one of the team's 1999 corporate sponsors. It pays for Qualcomm Stadium signage that is visible on television, sponsors the 'Seventh Inning Stretch' during the game, and advertises on the Padres' radio broadcasts. In those commercials, Padres announcer Ted Leitner endorses Metabolife's herbal dietary supplement, 'It changed my life!'"

Jay Emmett is said to be an advisor to the Padres on deals like Metabolife and other sponsorship and marketing arrangements. An old friend of team co-owner Larry Lucchino, Emmett, 71, whose home base is a Central Park South apartment in Manhattan and who reportedly serves on the Padres board, has enjoyed a low profile in San Diego. Although he has a phone line at the Padres' Mission Valley headquarters (he did not respond to repeated requests for comment left on his voice mail there), Emmett has never taken public roles such as advocating the new downtown stadium, as has his fellow Padres boardmember, Washington Post columnist George Will.

Some say Emmett, who was president of a New York corporation called Entertainment Sports International, Inc., until it was dissolved last March, is lying low for good reason.

Twenty years ago, Emmett was one of the most powerful executives at Warner Communications, Inc., which owned Warner Brothers studio and other entertainment-related assets, including the defunct New York Cosmos soccer team. In September 1980, Emmett was indicted for bribery, racketeering, and "violating his fiduciary duties to Warner" for his role in the infamous Westchester Premier Theatre scandal. The theater, built in the early 1970s on a dumping site near New York's Tappan Zee bridge, became noted as the place where Frank Sinatra was photographed in 1976, beaming alongside New York's top mafiosi, including Thomas Marson, Carlos Gambino, Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno, and Paul Castellano.

As recounted by Constance Bruck in her 1994 biography of the late Time-Warner CEO, Steve Ross (Master of the Game), the theater was a Mafia front from its inception. The partners included "organized crime soldiers Richard ('Nerves') Fusco, with the Colombo crime family, and Gregory De Palma, with the Gambino family (he would become a 'made' member in 1976). Later, Salvatore Cannatella, who, the government would allege, was connected to the Genovese family, would put $1.4 million into the theater and assume a dominant role. The Westchester Premier Theatre was nothing if not eclectic."

Besides performances by Sinatra, Bruck notes, the theater was the scene of all manner of rackets. "Skimming was incessant, with cash looted from the box office to pay back some of the 'shylock' money that had been used to start the theater and to line the pockets of those at the theater. Another more creative form of skimming was accomplished through the theater's 61 'phantom seats.' After the auditors had come, one of the theater's hidden owners had added 61 chairs. As he would later explain, 'The theater was practically empty during the week. But 61 chairs were always the first ones sold -- I promise you, there was never an empty chair in those seats. We used to make about $4500 a week on those. We'd put it in a separate envelope and split it four ways.'"

Sinatra, who was a major stockholder in Warners, "had been recruited to appear at the theater by Louis ('Louie Dones') Pacella, who worked for Frank ('Funzi') Tieri, head of the Genovese family." Bruck writes that Jimmy Fratianno, by then a government witness, implicated Sinatra in the theater's skimming operation. "Fratianno told prosecutors that De Palma had paid Sinatra $50,000 or $60,000 in cash, in Las Vegas, to persuade him to play the theater in 1977."

Another theater investor was West Coast mobster Tommy Marson, a former New York plumbing contractor who had relocated to a sprawling mansion in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs. He frequently did business in San Diego County and owned property on Otay Mesa. "Among Marson's other friends were mobsters de Palma, Jimmy ('the Weasel') Fratianno, Mike Rizzitello, Dominic Brooklier, and Frank ('the Bomp') Bompensiero [later to be found shot to death in a Pacific Beach phone booth]."

As Bruck tells it, the FBI, in search of information about Alfa Chemical Company, a cleaning-services company owned by Marson, Fratianno, Teamsters head Jackie Presser, and Las Vegas mafioso Tony Spilotro, bugged Marson's Rancho Mirage home in 1977. The FBI agents heard those present in Marson's house discussing "extortion, loan-sharking, land frauds, bribery, and bankruptcy frauds." They also heard about Marson's investment in the Westchester Premier. From a series of other informants, the feds soon learned that the corporate brass at Warner Communications had invested large sums of money in the theater and had accepted at least $170,000 of cash bribes in return. Jay Emmett was fingered as the principal go-between.

Though the government never said what the kickbacks paid to Warner by the mob-run theater were used for, theories abounded. "Many believed that the cash was used by Ross -- who dealt only in cash -- to finance his munificent lifestyle. Some, that the cash was needed for payola in WCI's record business. Or, for entertaining WCI's performers, which would include providing them with their drugs of choice," according to Bruck. Campaign contributions to Richard Nixon were also suspected. Mafioso Tony "the Pro" Provenzano, who was an associate of a Warners executive, "in early 1973 collected about $500,000 in cash for Nixon and arranged to have it delivered to Charles Colson.... And Colson, during this period of time, was a highly paid consultant to WCI."

When he was indicted in September 1980, the government charged Emmett with having accepted bribes from the mob that induced Warner Communications to buy stock in the theater, as well as misappropriating funds from the company that went to the theater's promoters, along with creating phony documents to hide the theft. Five months later, on the eve of his trial, February 9, 1981, Emmett cut a deal with prosecutors, agreed to testify against other Warner executives, and pleaded guilty to two felony counts. He avoided prison but was thrown out of the Warner executive suite, where he was once said to have been Ross's closest friend.

Some, including Ross biographer Bruck, who today says she regards herself as Emmett's friend, maintained that Emmett had been forced to take the fall for Ross, who escaped indictment and went on to merge his company with Time, Inc., creating what is now Time-Warner. Bruck notes that Emmett had been advised by Micky Rudin, Sinatra's agent and attorney, to assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the federal grand jury investigating the case but had been told by Warner corporate counsel Arthur Liman to testify. The 67 lies Emmett subsequently told during his grand-jury testimony set him up for indictment, Bruck says. In any case, Emmett and Ross (who died of prostate cancer in December 1992) were said to have been two of a kind.

Both were big-time gamblers, risk-takers, and extravagant spenders. Emmett, whom Ross had installed to oversee the company's Warner Brothers movie operation and who did Ross's every bidding, often traveled with Ross on the company's jet to a Warner-owned villa in Las Brisas on the coast of Mexico. Though both were married, they frequently took along female companionship, according to Bruck.

"While Ross was still married to Carol he had met a woman in Los Angeles named Cathy Mitchell. They began an affair that lasted for more than a year. Ross, accompanied by Emmett, would meet her in Las Vegas, where Ross nearly always stayed at Caesar's Palace in the Frank Sinatra Suite (complete with piano), his $200 tips making him popular with doormen and bellmen. Often they went to Las Brisas together. It was quite a contingent: Jay with whatever woman he was seeing covertly at the moment, Steve, Cathy, and, on occasion, Cathy's mother. Ross, naturally, lavished gifts on Cathy. He also was said to have paid for plastic surgery for her (and her mother). On one Las Brisas outing, the plastic surgeon and his girlfriend came too." Later, when Ross decided to split up with Mitchell, "Ross gave Emmett $10,000 cash to give to Cathy Mitchell to end the affair."

After Emmett's 1981 guilty plea, Ross never spoke to him again. But he was quickly back in the game. Through a referral from Warner corporate counsel Arthur Liman, Emmett had retained Edward Bennett Williams, an ultra-connected Washington defense lawyer, as his attorney. Williams's client roster included Frank Sinatra, along with Teamsters Union head Jimmy Hoffa, Mafia godfather Frank Costello, and Sam "Momo" Giancana, the one-time Chicago mob boss who, along with Cleveland kingpin Moe Dalitz, split the skim from the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Williams and his associates had gotten Giancana out of federal prison, only to later see him gunned down in a bloody 1975 mob hit after he returned home to Chicago from an agreed-upon Mexican exile, prepared to testify to a congressional committee about what he knew about the CIA's purported role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Working for Williams -- indeed he was said to be Williams's protégé -- was none other than Lawrence Lucchino, now co-owner of the Padres. Williams, recounts Bruck, was in the camp of those who felt Emmett had been wronged by his best friend and most generous patron, Ross, who had cut his old employee off at the knees.

"Ed Williams is said to have called [Warners corporate counsel Arthur] Liman and said that Emmett had 'walked through minefields' for Ross and that this was a sorry way to repay him," according to Bruck's account. "Ross made Williams apoplectic. Williams had become very fond of Emmett and thought that what Ross had done -- using his best friend to shield himself -- was unconscionable; it enraged him more than the violent crimes that some of his other clients had committed. As a confidant of Williams's would recall, 'Ed hated the injustice to Emmett. He just thought it was wrong. He used to call me every day, saying, "That goddamn Ross..."'"

If Emmett had lost a friend in Ross, he gained two in Williams and Lucchino. Williams's interest in Emmett was not completely humanitarian. Bringing along his reputation for loyally bending the rules and breaking the law for his boss -- then clamming up and taking the rap -- along with his Rolodex full of connections, Emmett was invaluable to Williams and his protégé Lucchino as they built their own sports empire.

In 1983, Williams would become the only team owner in American professional sports history to win both the World Series, with his Baltimore Orioles, and the Super Bowl, with the Washington Redskins (his partner was Jack Kent Cooke), in the same year. But he didn't do it alone. In his 1991 biography of Williams entitled The Man to See, author Evan Thomas writes, "Throughout his ownership of the Orioles, Williams was advised by Jay Emmett, a former client and Paramount [sic] executive with smart promotional instincts, and Williams's young law partner, Larry Lucchino, who became the Orioles president."

Lucchino was said to have cut his teeth, alongside Emmett, on managing the business and legal affairs of the Redskins. In the Williams biography, Emmett is quoted as relating a story about how in the 1980s Williams managed to buy out the Redskins partnership interest of the deceased George Preston Marshall after a series of rough negotiations with lawyers representing Marshall's estate. Once the deal -- which was favorable to Williams -- was done, Emmett said he "kidded" Williams's chauffeur by saying, "Hey, Leroy. Was it you or Ed who pulled the pillow over Marshall's face?"

Emmett was said to be Lucchino's part-time tutor and sometimes a bemused observer of his younger charge. In the Williams biography, Emmett, identified as a former Orioles boardmember and "longtime friend" of Lucchino's, is quoted as describing the relationship between the young Lucchino and his boss Williams. "Ed saw a lot of Larry Lucchino in himself -- a good tough negotiator, a good lawyer. He emulated Ed. Larry would come back from making the best deal he could make on some contract -- television, say -- the best he could do, and he'd sit there with Ed, and Ed would say, 'WHAT ARE YOU? THE LITTLE WHIPPING BOY? YOU GAVE AWAY THE FUCKING STORE! YOU LAID DOWN FOR THEM, DIDN'T YOU, LUCCHINO!' Larry could never win.

"I'll tell you this," Emmett then added, "Larry is a better negotiator than Ed was. Larry is the best negotiator now that I've ever seen. Larry is brutal and tough."

With Williams near death in June 1988, Lucchino stepped forward to claim a part of the Orioles. In the Williams biography, Emmett is quoted as describing events at a party held at the house of Ethel Kennedy, the late Senator Robert Kennedy's widow. Lucchino, who Emmett says once dated Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver, approached her father R. Sargent Shriver and his son Bobby and discussed putting a deal together for the team. "Sarge," according to Emmett's account, "because of Bobby, went to Ed and said, 'If you ever want to sell, I'd like the first crack at coming in,' and Ed kind of gave him a commitment." According to Emmett, Lucchino was subsequently introduced to Eli Jacobs, a New York financier, who became the money partner in the deal, which included Lucchino and the Shrivers. After that, Emmett was quoted as saying, "There was a major rush. Within a month they'd made an offer."

Williams died in August 1988. Under the Orioles' new ownership arrangement, Lucchino became president and chief executive officer of the team. In 1993, after a new stadium was built and paid for by a public subsidy, the Orioles were again sold, this time to Peter Angelos, a successful plaintiff's attorney who reportedly made more than a billion dollars from fees related to asbestos litigation. Angelos and his minority partners, including novelist Tom Clancy, paid $173 million. Lucchino reportedly profited handsomely from his 11 percent interest. After that, Lucchino tried and failed to put together a partnership to take over the Pittsburgh Pirates in his old hometown.

Then Lucchino was introduced to John Moores, who wanted to buy the Padres and build a new stadium. "Someone at Alex Brown [a brokerage firm] in Baltimore...knew about my work in Baltimore, and they told him that he should hook up with me and that we should talk," Lucchino would later tell a reporter. "I met with Moores and he turned out to be such a charming and attractive partner that it made my decision easy, and I chose to join with him and come [to San Diego]." By all accounts, Emmett was an integral part of the deal.

These days Emmett does not attract the kind of media attention he did when he worked for Steve Ross and Edward Bennett Williams. Last August, his name popped up in a news release from an outfit called 4Kids Entertainment, which has exclusive North American rights for all Pokémon merchandising, announcing he had joined the company's board of directors. "Mr. Emmett is a pioneer in the licensing industry having been founder and chairman of Licensing Corporation of America (now known as Warner Bros. Consumer Products), which he later sold to Warner Communications. During his tenure at Licensing Corporation of America he represented such prestigious accounts as Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, James Bond, the National Football League Players, the National Hockey League Players, and a host of television properties. After selling his corporation, Mr. Emmett worked in the office of the president of Warner Communications to oversee Warner Bros. film division. Mr. Emmett also sits on the International Board of the Special Olympics and the board of the San Diego Padres Baseball Club."

There was no mention of the Westchester Premier Theatre.

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