NYSAC under fire: The Inspector General’s investigation – Part IV
On March 26, 2014, with the Inspector General’s investigation underway, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the appointment of David Berlin to fill the vacant post of executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission.
Berlin assumed his position on May 1, 2014. Two weeks later, on May 15, Ralph Petrillo was dismissed as director of boxing. Eric Bentley was given Petrillo’s duties on an interim basis.
Melvina Lathan had no input in the decision to terminate Petrillo. In discussing the matter with the Inspector General’s office, she stated, “What was said, if I’m recalling correctly, is that it came from the IG.” Lathan was also concerned that her own job might be in jeopardy.
The chairmanship of the NYSAC is a full-time position that pays approximately $100,000 annually. The other two commissioners serve on a per diem basis.
Before Berlin took office, primary authority for the daily operation of the NYSAC resided with the chairperson. But Lathan and Berlin were advised by the Secretary of State’s office that, after a June 7, 2014, fight card at Madison Square Garden, Berlin would be responsible for overseeing the daily operation of the commission.
The old guard resisted.
Felix Figueroa, the commission’s chief inspector, had died suddenly on Feb. 14, 2014. Thereafter, Lathan had named Mike Paz as acting chief inspector.
Two commission inspectors told Department of State officials that, over Memorial Day weekend (the evening of May 23 through May 26), Paz made telephone calls to them and other inspectors asking for their help in undermining Berlin and shoring up Lathan’s position.
The plan, as reported to the Inspector General’s office, was for inspectors to work the June 7 fight card at Madison Square Garden (which featured Sergio Martinez vs. Miguel Cotto). Then, after the transfer of power to Berlin (who was to be given additional authority on June 9), the inspectors would engage in a slowdown or refuse to work at a June 14 fight card at Barclays Center. At that point, it was allegedly planned, Lathan would show her mettle and restore order.
Lathan, when questioned by the Inspector General’s office, denied knowing of the plan until after it was reported to the Secretary of State’s office on May 27 and a state employee told her about it.
Lathan: I don’t know anything about that. I mean, I heard it, yes. But did I know anything about that? Nah. Not at all.
Q: Who did you hear it from?
Lathan: Umm. Another employee from upstate, John Dantonio, said to me that there was some talk and if I had heard anything like that. I had not heard anything like that.
Q: Have you had any discussions with Mr. Paz about that?
Q: Our understanding is that Mr. Paz called a number of inspectors and suggested there be some kind of job action.
A: I, you know, I wouldn’t think that anyone, if he had in fact made that call; I don’t see him making that call. But then, you know, human nature is human nature. Umm, I don’t see anybody, our inspectors are paid below minimum wage, but I think they have integrity. I don’t know. I wasn’t involved in that. I don’t know if he did in fact call anybody or that was what happened.
Q: Since Mr. Petrillo’s departure, have you had any discussions with him?
Q: Are you aware of whether or not he has communicated with anybody else on the staff, any of the inspectors, by email or text or otherwise?
Lathan: Yes. He sent a letter. Ah, umm. I don’t remember the content of the letter, but it was something to the effect of, umm, I’m sorry it took me so long to let you know that I’m no longer with the commission. Umm. Something about stand up and do your job. I don’t really know verbatim what it was. It was kind of a pep talk, I think. It sounded like that to me.
Q: Just for clarity’s sake, you have had no discussions or communications with Mr. Paz of any kind regarding any job slowdown.
Lathan: Absolutely not.
Q: Has Mr. Paz griped to you at any point about Mr. Petrillo being let go?
Lathan: Griped? Well, I mean, he questioned it. He asked why, which, again, is natural. That’s normal. Why did that happen? My response was, ‘I don’t know.’
Q: Did he in any way, theoretically, hypothetically, suggest something on the order of, “What if we did something? What if we took some kind of action?” Do you recall him saying anything like that?
Lathan: No. No, I don’t. No. He was disappointed, obviously.
Paz was interrogated about the proposed job action on two occasions. The first was on May 30, 2014, at his home in Orange County, New York. Chief Investigator Robert Werner, a retired New York City police detective, took the lead.
Q: One of the concerns we have is, we received information that there has been talk of conducting a job slowdown or a no-show or a sick-out, however you want to describe it, in connection with ongoing events. Do you have any knowledge at all about that?
Paz: No, sir.
Q: Has anyone spoken to you or have you spoken to anyone about engaging in this type of activity?
Q: Has there been any talk amongst any inspectors or from anyone about a slowdown?
Q: When was the last time you spoke with Melvina?
A: The 17th of May [at a fight card in Brooklyn].
Q: So there’s been no discussion among any of the inspectors that you’re aware of about having either some type of rulebook slowdown or sickout or doing anything to disrupt the athletic commission’s ability to oversee an event?
Paz: No. To my knowledge, no.
Q: Has there been any talk at all to your knowledge about disrupting the activities of the athletic commission.
Q: Have you spoken to Ralph [Petrillo] recently?
Paz: The day before yesterday.
Q: As we know, Ralph is no longer with the commission.
Q: Has there been any conversation between you and Ralph about the circumstances that led to him no longer having that position?
Paz: No comment.
Q: So this was a conversation you may have had with Mr. Petrillo, but you do not want to answer any questions?
Paz: The conversation I had was just a personal conversation.
Q: So any conversation you had with Mr. Petrillo since he left the commission has been of a personal nature and not related to your commission work. Is that correct?
Paz: Most of it, yes.
Q: Well, it’s like being pregnant. You have to either be pregnant or not pregnant. I just want to make sure again – because we are under oath – and be very, very clear. Have you had any conversations with anyone – and this would include Mr. Petrillo – regarding what I described as a rulebook slowdown and/or sickout? Because this is very important.
Paz: Well, I don’t understand. Is this a target or something? Is this being a target?
Q: We had heard that there were plans by certain inspectors to participate in either a rulebook slowdown and/or a sickout, and that that had been discussed by the inspectors. I asked you previously if you had knowledge of any of those conversations, and you said no.
Q: So this is the first time you’re hearing about any plans to disrupt the commission?
Paz: No. Did not.
Five days later, Werner met again with Paz. This time, the investigator appeared unannounced at Paz’s place of work and began the session as follows.
Q: Just listen to what I have to say now as opposed to my asking you any questions. Based on my investigation, based on my conversations with other people, it’s clear that what you told me was not entirely the truth. Now just listen to me for a moment. You were under oath. Before we make a determination on whether or not you actually committed perjury, I’m going to give you one chance, and only one chance, to correct what you told me. And it’s really, really important, because I can back it up with other people that I’ve spoken to. So the questions are this. Did you ever reach out to anyone or have a conversation with any inspector regarding the possibility of a job action or slowdown or something along those lines?
Paz: After I spoke to you, I sat and talked to my wife because she was upset about the whole thing. So we talked. She says, “Well, you know, you might hear from him again.” I said, “If I do, I’ll speak to them.” Everything that you threw at me is all new to me. After reviewing it, and my wife was asking me, “Did you say something at any of the shows? Did you talk to anybody?” Because I had inspectors that called me. “Hey, what the hell happened [to Petrillo]?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. They released him, and I don’t know.” And then we got into a conversation that, “This ain’t right.” And then we were talking about, “How would they feel if we didn’t show up at shows? Then what?”
Q: That’s, to me, the definition of a job action.
Paz: But as far as me saying, “Let’s go rally the troops and let’s go rah-rah; let’s stick it to them.” No. I did express I was upset.
Q: How did you express it? What did you suggest?
Paz: I said, “Well, you know, how would they feel if we didn’t show up for shows because of the way we’re being treated? Then what? Then what? Okay?” I said, “We’ll talk about it sometime. You know? But right now, we’re committed to shows, and that’s where we’re at.”
Q: Here’s the second and very important question. Did you have any conversations regarding that with Melvina? Think long and hard before you [answer] because what we’re talking about is you and what potentially could happen to you if you weren’t being truthful. Did you ever use a term such as “We have Melvina’s support” or words to that effect?
Werner then referenced a specific show that Paz had attended with Lathan.
Paz [after a pause of about 10 seconds]: I’m gonna be honest on this one. I don’t know. I mean, we [Lathan and Paz] did grumble about how things are going. I did express about Ralph being let go. Okay. Did I tell her that we were planning on doing a walkout. I’m gonna say no.
Q: What prompted these discussions? Was it Ralph’s termination?
Paz: I think that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are changes going on. They bring in Dave Berlin, and it’s like who is this guy? A lot of guys are left in limbo. When we found out that Ralph was terminated, okay, we were very upset because he was like our guiding force and to not know why, what happened, what’s going on; that really just like set us off.
Q: You may feel that you have an allegiance to Ralph. You may feel that you have an allegiance to Melvina. But I’m going to tell you; we drove a long way to come see you last Friday. You were under oath. You’ve got to understand what that means. We are here now again to clarify this. This is your opportunity to be truthful with us. Listen, some people have nothing to lose by talking to us. So you got to keep in the back of your mind that maybe we talked to Melvina. Maybe we talked to Ralph. Maybe we talked to this one. Maybe we talked to that one. So I want to know. I want you to think real hard before you answer this. Did you speak to Melvina about this? And I get it. Everybody’s pissed. What would happen now if we just said fuck you and we took our time doing this or we took our time doing that. You need to let us know who you spoke to.
Paz: I spoke to inspectors in general. You know, we just talked.
Q: When you say inspectors, Michael, what inspectors?
Paz: Uhhh, there’s quite a few that worked the shows.
Q: Was Melvina around when you were having these discussions?
Paz: And I said, “We’re pissed. How would it feel if we didn’t start showing up for shows? Then what? We’re not getting paid. And look what they did to Ralph. Who’s next?” So everybody’s running gun-shy. I might have said some things out of emotion. But to follow through, no. I would not do something like that.
Q: Did you make any phone calls to any inspectors?
Q: How many inspectors? Keep in mind; it’s a very simple matter for me to get your phone records.
Paz: Maybe four.
Q: And how did that conversation go when you spoke to them on the phone?
Paz: I said, “Look, they let Ralph go. I don’t know why.” And then we got in a conversation about … ummm … I said, “Guys are talking about, you know, maybe if we don’t start showing up for shows, we’ll see what happens from there.” But we didn’t commit for any shows for this to happen.
Q: Did you make any statement about Melvina having your back or showing you support in this? And if so, how did you determine that Melvina was supporting this? This is the 64-dollar question.
Paz: I got to be honest. I can’t remember.
Q: Did you have any conversation with Melvina, exhibiting the same type of frustration?
Paz: I did mention [to] Melvina about the fact, she knows we’re upset about Ralph being released. But the most sticking point is the money that we get paid. And I said to her “Guys are upset. Some of them are looking to throw the hat in. Some of them just don’t know what they’re gonna do.”
Q: Did you mention to Melvina, “How would they like it if we didn’t show up?” And did she respond to you?
Paz: I can’t remember. I’ll be honest with you. I can’t remember that.
Q: Do you recall any of the words that you spoke to Melvina about this potential – and I’m going to use my term – job action? Did you have any conversation with Melvina? Did she have any conversation with you? Did she indicate she was supportive of this? Not supportive? Did she say that wouldn’t be a good idea?
Paz: I’m going to probably say she wasn’t going to support it if there was any action. I’m gonna say she did not give, at least to me, whether she was supporting it or not. Okay? Because she was upset because of the fact, she doesn’t know what her stance is. So she was more focused on what’s gonna happen to her. She said to me, “If they got Ralph, they’re probably going to be looking at me now.” She did not give an indication to us – at least to me; I’m gonna speak for me – that she was supporting it or not supporting it. She was more worried about her fate.
Q: Okay. I’m going to re-say the 64-dollar question again. Did you have any conversation with Melvina regarding a possible job action, slowdown, stand-down, however you want to describe it, and did she respond either pro or con or try to talk you out of it or just acknowledge the fact that you guys were frustrated?
Paz: I think she acknowledged that guys were frustrated. But – umm – she did not tell me whether I support you on it or against it. She was upset more about what’s happening to her.
Q: Did you tell Melvina that you were going to be reaching out to other inspectors?
Paz: I don’t know if I told her that. I may. I don’t know.
Q: And you made several calls to several inspectors? This is on the phone, I’m talking about.
Paz: Yeah. It was only like three or four guys I spoke to.
Q: Did you talk to Ralph about this?
Paz: About you guys?
Q: No. About this job action or discussions of the job action.
Paz: I had mentioned that we were thinking about doing it. And he says, not a good idea.
This contradicted Paz’s earlier statements regarding his conversations with Petrillo. And at the end of Paz’s second interrogation, there was a contradiction regarding his conversations with Lathan.
Q: Our main concern in coming here today is to make sure that we got the truth from you. Had you continued down this road and not corrected your testimony on what you told us about on Friday, you could have very seriously jeopardized yourself. We wanted to give you an opportunity to correct. We have a job to do. We take our notes. We listen to the recording. And we spoke to other people. And it’s not the same set of circumstances that we got when we spoke to you. So we came here today to give you a chance. If there is anything else that you’re holding back, now is the time to tell us. That’s why I’m asking you again for the last time; did Melvina know about this conversation regarding a possible job action or slowdown?
Paz: I did mention it to her briefly. But like I said, she did not say “I support you” or “don’t do it.”
Q: So she was non-committal?
Q: But she heard what you were saying?
Paz: But it didn’t happen as far as us taking any action.
It should be noted here that evidence of Paz telephoning more than “three or four” inspectors was presented to the Inspector General’s office. Also, one inspector’s contemporaneous written notes on Paz’s comments during a May 23, 2014, call that Paz made to the inspector read in part: “Ralph gave list of who to call / who not to call … Blow commission open.”
Petrillo had been interviewed by the Inspector General’s office prior to the issue of a proposed job action arising and was not questioned by the Inspector General’s office on the subject. Had Petrillo been re-interviewed, he may well have disputed the notion that he gave Paz a list of who to call and not call.
Soon after being interviewed by the Inspector General’s office, Paz was relieved of his duties as an inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission.
And Melvina Lathan’s days as chairperson were numbered.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected]. His most recent book (A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press