NYSAC under fire: The Inspector General’s investigation – Part V
This is the last in a five-part series on the Inspector General of the State of New York’s investigation of the New York State Athletic Commission. Click here for Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.
Once David Berlin’s authority as executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission was clarified, a number of pressing issues were addressed and the process of professionalizing the NYSAC began.
One of Berlin’s first acts was to appoint the much-respected George Ward and Tim Duffy as co-chief inspectors. More personnel changes followed. Berlin also pushed successfully for an increase in the per diem fee paid to inspectors from $52 to $100 per fight card.
More importantly, Berlin began the much-needed process of developing clear protocols for commission personnel across the board; training a new generation of ring doctors, inspectors, referees and judges; and ensuring that relevant information is given to fighters and their respective teams in a timely manner.
A new sense of professionalism began to pervade the commission.
On Jan. 12, 2015, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Tom Hoover would replace Melvina Lathan as NYSAC chairperson. Hoover had served as chief inspector and an assistant deputy commissioner for the commission in the 1980s and 1990s. Before that, he’d been an All-American basketball player at Villanova and a first-round NBA draft choice. After retiring from basketball, he’d served in a variety of public service and private sector jobs.
Hoover was confirmed as NYSAC chairman by the New York State Senate and took office on June 16, 2015.
Meanwhile, something strange was happening. Or to be more precise, it was strange that something was not happening. The report of the Inspector General’s Office on its investigation of the New York State Athletic Commission wasn’t released.
In some respects, the administration of Governor Cuomo has been a model of effective governance. But at times, it has fallen short of the mark.
On July 2, 2013, pursuant to the Moreland Act and Executive Law, Governor Cuomo, with great fanfare, announced the creation of a “Commission to Investigate Public Corruption” in New York State. Then, on March 31, 2014, the governor announced that he had decided to dismantle the commission, saying that the reforms he wanted would be implemented by the passage of new legislation.
Thereafter, in a July 23, 2014, article headlined, “Cuomo’s Office Hobbled Ethics Inquiries by Moreland Commission,” the New York Times reported, “A three-month examination by the New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”
At that point, federal authorities stepped into the fray. The three most powerful men in the state capital of Albany were Cuomo, Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader of the New York State Senate Dean Skelos. Silver and Skelos were each indicted by a federal grand jury. On Nov. 30, 2015, Silver was found guilty on seven counts of abusing his office for more than $4 million in personal gain. On Dec. 11, 2015, Skelos and his son were found guilty on eight counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy.
With that as background, it’s no surprise that politics sometimes interferes with the effective operation of the New York State Athletic Commission. The previously-referenced 2011 title fight between Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito is a case in point.
Lathan contributed to the crisis by her delay in confronting the issue of Margarito’s medical condition. But when the NYSAC medical staff sought to deny Margarito a license to box because of the condition of his eye, the political machine weighed in.
Many of the redactions from interview transcripts released by the Inspector General’s office pursuant to the New York State Freedom of Information Law appear to deal with political pressure exerted upon the NYSAC with regard to Cotto-Margarito. But even with these redactions, a picture emerges.
Q [asked of Dr. Barry Jordan]: Do you know if any pressure was put on anybody, political pressure or economic pressure of any kind?
Dr. Jordan: I don’t know. I mean, you hear things. It was hearsay.
Q: What’s the hearsay?
Dr. Jordan: I don’t know how true it is. I just heard Albany wanted the – somebody said Albany wanted the fight to go through.
Dr. Anthony Curreri told investigators, “The promoters wanted Margarito to fight in New York, and myself and the rest of the medical team saw him unfit to box.
Q: What was the basis for overturning the initial finding that he shouldn’t be allowed to box?
Curreri: I never could find out. I asked Ralph Petrillo [the NYSAC director of boxing at that time]. I asked Melvina Lathan. And I did not get an answer.
Q: When you asked Melvina Lathan, what did she say if she didn’t give an answer?
Curreri: The exact words, I cannot recall, but that it was something beyond [her] control.
The Inspector General’s office also questioned Lathan on the issue and asked, “Were there any other outside influences that tried to influence you personally on this fight to get the decision to allow Margarito to fight?”
Most of the next three pages in Lathan’s testimony have been redacted. Then:
Q: Do you feel like Albany was trying to place any undue pressure on you?
A: I questioned it. I questioned it.
Lathan testified next to receiving an email from someone in the Department of State, whose name she didn’t remember:
Lathan: It had a list of reasons for – you know, the Garden was all sold out. I don’t remember each specific line.
Q: There were people’s concern on why it should go forward, correct?
Secretary of State Cesar Perales was also questioned about the matter.
Q: I’m going to shift gears on you totally now and ask you about a fight that occurred in 2011, and see if you have any recollection of this. This was the Cotto-Margarito fight.
Perales: Yes, I do have a recollection.
Q: What is your recollection?
Perales: That [was] just a few months after I had become Secretary. I thought it was kind of messy. And I thought [there] was something wrong with the way it had been handled, which incidentally led to my asking my audit people to give me a thorough review of how the commission operated.
Q: With respect to that particular fight, did you have any communications with the Governor’s office or any of the secretaries or deputy secretaries?
Perales: My executive deputy would have been the person who would have received a communication or spoken to somebody. I didn’t.
Q: Are you aware any type of, I don’t want to say pressure, but that any kind of suggestion was made that efforts should be made to license Margarito?
Perales: I don’t know how to answer that question. Let me say that I was personally disappointed when that fight was being cancelled. We looked pretty silly in the media because, as I recall, Melvina herself had made a big deal of this bout coming to New York. And suddenly, there is an announcement that, based on the medical reports of the boxer, he couldn’t fight. So I wanted to make sure that this was not being done arbitrarily. I think that it would have embarrassed everybody, including me. So I was personally concerned. I may have very well been told by somebody in my office that the Governor’s office was equally concerned.
Q: I will tell you that Chairlady Lathan told us that she received an email – she thought it might have been from you; she tried to retrieve it but is so far unable to – concerning the cancellation of the fight and making certain suggestions to –
Perales: It wasn’t me. I’m positive of that.
Q: But it may have been somebody on your staff?
Perales: If that’s what she says. I don’t know what that email might have said. You’re not telling me exactly what it said.
Q: There was a suggestion to her, apparently in the email, that every effort be made that this fight proceed.
Perales: Oh, I’m sure she received – I wouldn’t have sent her an email, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I said to her, “Are you sure this has got to be canceled? You’re looking pretty silly.”
Madeline Brady, the former NYSAC director of licensing, was more direct in her testimony to the Inspector General’s office.
Brady: Melvina went to a press conference announcing this fight, and she was all for it. Gave it a big thumbs up. Pictures of her all over the Internet saying how awesome this fight is going to be. And she hadn’t looked at the whole picture. Then it was brought to the chief medical officer, at the time it was Dr. Osric King’s attention. Dr. King was not going to allow Mr. Margarito to fight. From there on, things got crazy. The Secretary of State’s office on behalf of the Governor intervened. The commission was being handled by the Governor’s public relations people. It was not a good two or three days in the commission. I firmly believe that Melvina [by then] wanted to not let the fight happen. But she was being pushed because it was a public relations nightmare.
Q: Who was Melvina being pushed by?
Brady: The three PR people that were, I’m going to say literally following her around for a two-day period, going into these public meetings. I remember Melvina saying, “The Governor wants this to happen and told the Secretary of State this has got to happen, so we’ve got to find a way to have it happen.”
Q: Did she say that to you?
Brady: Oh, yeah. When she wasn’t in meetings and when she wasn’t with these people who were advising her, she was in Ralph’s office with me like on the verge of tears. I think a lot of the tears were, she had created this monster and now she wanted to get out and she didn’t know how to do it. She didn’t know how to undo this mess.
At its best, the political process improves peoples’ lives. At its worst, it destroys them.
When chief investigator Robert Werner interrogated NYSAC inspector Mike Paz for the second time, Werner told him, “Just to explain to you how things work. Although this most recent investigation started as a result of the November 2nd [Magomed Abdusalamov] fight, you start looking at policies, procedures. We start looking at the old IG reports. [It’s] a very small agency, the athletic commission. You guys have been investigated five times. And when you start looking at that type of stat, what’s wrong with this picture?”
Two of the three NYSAC commissioners at the time of the fight in which Abdusalamov suffered his injuries at the hands of Mike Perez (Lathan and John Signorile) have been discussed in previous installments of this report. The third commissioner was Edwin Torres.
Torres, who still sits on the commission, was nominated to his post by Governor David Paterson in 2008. He’s now 85 years old, a retired New York State Supreme Court judge and the author of “Carlito’s Way,” which was made into a feature film starring Al Pacino.
The interview with Torres by the Inspector General’s office is enlightening.
Torres: I took this job as a fun thing.
Q: Were you told, or did you find out in any way, what your responsibilities would be as a commissioner for the athletic commission?
Torres: I don’t have an independent recollection of those instructions. But obviously, the safety of the fighters, the integrity of the sport, those are the overarching principles that guide us.
Q: Is there anything other than the fun to the appearance at the actual boxing events?
Q: Is there any kind of responsibility for you to direct any of the people who are deputy commissioners or inspectors or anything like that?
Torres: No, none of that.
Q: Any other responsibilities that are involved in being a commissioner that we haven’t discussed?
Edwin Torres: Not that comes to me.
Q: With respect to training that’s given at the athletic commission, do you participate in that in any way?
Torres: Training who? The fighters? No.
Q: Do you have any interaction with the inspectors or the judges?
Torres: No. Say about the fights, it’s social and so forth.
Q: What about the deputy commissioners?
Q: On any particular fight event that you attend, do you have any responsibilities vis-a-vis any of the athletic commission personnel who are in attendance?
Torres: No, not that I know.
One might argue that it made sense to delay release of the Inspector General’s report until after Lathan was replaced as NYSAC chairperson. That way, she wouldn’t be the one commenting on it on behalf of the commission. But the delay in releasing the report – and it still hasn’t been released – is helping to perpetuate a system in which old mistakes are now being repeated.
Once again, there’s friction between the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and its executive director. Once again, protocols are breaking down. A lot of the good work that Berlin did is being undone.
Multiple sources say that the Inspector General’s office has resumed its inquiry to look at some of the difficulties that have arisen since Hoover assumed the chairmanship last year.
If the Inspector General’s report had been released in a timely manner and its recommendations acted upon, the current extension of its investigation might not have been necessary.
Despite its faults, the NYSAC is one of the better-run state athletic commissions in the country. As noted earlier, it has many dedicated, conscientious, knowledgeable employees.
But the NYSAC can and should do a better job. And that job is about to get tougher because the state legislature, after years of debate, seems poised to legalize mixed martial arts in New York. That will add new responsibilities to a commission that is still coming to grips with how to best regulate boxing and has few, if any, personnel qualified to deal with MMA.
The proposed legislation would also increase the number of NYSAC commissioners from three to five. Whether these openings will be filled by qualified professionals or political patronage employees is an open issue.
Keith Sullivan, an attorney with a full-time legal practice, serves as a deputy commissioner for the New York State Athletic Commission. Talking with investigators from the Inspector General’s office about the Abdusalamov tragedy, Sullivan said, “You can criticize the ref, the doctor, the inspector, the cornermen. I think this is going to happen in the sport of boxing from time to time. It’s boxing, it’s not ballet. You’re agreeing to let somebody punch you repeatedly in the head. It happens.”
But Sullivan, who has long been an advocate for fighters, was moved by the horror of it all.
“I didn’t think I was going to get emotional,” Sullivan told investigators at one point when his voice broke. “It was a good tough fight. Ten rounds. We sat there being entertained. Those who watched and those who cheered. They were entertained. It’s just hard to – it’s just sad. I’m embarrassed to say that it was a good fight. It was an entertaining fight. You think of the Romans and people dying in colosseums, and it’s sick that people cheered and got entertained by that. And that’s sort of a little bit about how I feel about this fight.”
It’s unfortunate that more people in leadership roles in boxing don’t show the same emotional investment regarding the welfare of fighters that Sullivan does.
Meanwhile, it would be fantasy to imagine that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pays much attention to the New York State Athletic Commission. Perhaps he should. The lives of fighters are at risk.
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