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NYSAC under fire: The federal government steps in, Part I

10
Aug

The resignation of Tom Hoover as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, announced on July 25, 2016, is the tip of an iceberg. Multiple sources say that two separate federal investigations of events at the NYSAC are underway.

One of these investigations is being conducted by the Public Integrity Section of United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and is believed to be focusing on alleged wrongdoing by NYSAC officials.

The other investigation has broader implications. Its nerve center is the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. This investigation is exploring whether the administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo improperly influenced the Inspector General of the State of New York in conjunction with an investigation undertaken after Magomed Abdusalamov suffered life-changing injuries against Mike Perez at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2, 2013.

In February of this year, I authored a five-part investigative report entitled “NYSAC Under Fire: The Inspector General’s Investigation.” (This report can be found here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.)

This earlier series was based in large measure upon thousands of pages of interview transcripts that were generated as part of the inspector general’s investigation and produced pursuant to the New York State Freedom of Information Law. Among the themes I explored then were:

  1. Magomed Abdusalamov was the victim of inadequate medical procedures and protocols that were in place at the time of his injury.
  1. The New York State Athletic Commission was beset by larger issues of incompetence and corruption.

Equally troubling was the fact that the inspector general’s report had not been released in a timely manner. More than a year earlier, a representative of the inspector general’s office had made courtesy telephone calls to several people, telling them that release of the report was “imminent.” I received one of those calls (on Dec. 3, 2014), as did David Berlin, executive director of the New York State Athletic Commission at that time.

But the Inspector General’s report wasn’t released. Nineteen more months passed. During that time, Governor Cuomo announced that Tom Hoover would replace Melvina Lathan as chairperson of the New York State Athletic Commission Hoover was confirmed by the New York State Senate on June 16, 2015.

Finally, on July 25, 2016, the inspector general’s report was made public.

The bulk of the report relates to Magomed Abdusalamov and the medical issues surrounding his fate. In part, the report states, “The Inspector General found that many Athletic Commission practices, policies and procedures were either nonexistent or deficient, specifically those relating to post-bout medical care, tactical emergency plans and communication, and training. The Inspector General also found a lack of appropriate engagement and oversight by Athletic Commission commissioners and its chair.”

The report further stated, “During the pendency of this investigation, the Inspector General received information that Melvina Lathan, the Athletic Commission chair at the time of the bout, and other Athletic Commission staff had received improper gifts from promoters. The Inspector General subsequently received allegations that current Athletic Commission Chair Thomas Hoover engaged in improper conduct in obtaining benefits for a relative and friends.”

After concluding that the allegations against Lathan and Hoover were substantially true, the inspector general’s report declared, “It is imperative that all Athletic Commission commissioners and staff adhere to the highest standards of ethics and professionalism. The Inspector General is referring this matter to the Department of State to take whatever action it deems appropriate against the employees identified in this investigation. The Inspector General is also referring this matter to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics for whatever action the commission deems appropriate.”

The inspector general’s report has flaws. But, overall, it was an excellent piece of work that reflected the diligent efforts of staff members involved in the investigation. On the day the report was released, the New York State Athletic Commission announced that Hoover had resigned as chairperson.

But the NYSAC remains in turmoil. It didn’t have to be that way.

On March 26, 2014, with the Inspector General’s investigation of the NYSAC underway and Melvina Lathan still serving as chairperson, Governor Cuomo announced the appointment of David Berlin as executive director of the commission.

Berlin assumed his position on May 1, 2014. There was a transition period ending on June 7, 2014, after which he assumed the day-to-day duties of running the office and overseeing fight cards, responsibilities that had previously been assigned to Lathan. Before long, Berlin was implementing changes that were essential to the proper functioning of the commission. These initiatives included:

  • Updating medical protocols for ring physicians.
  • Instituting programs to educate fighters on how to apply for Obamacare, Medicaid and other services.
  • Updating NYSAC protocols with regard to illegal performance enhancing drugs, including the thorny process of dealing with USADA.
  • Urging a serious study of the effect that cutting weight and the timing of weigh-ins have on the health and safety of fighters.
  • Instituting programs in an effort to ensure that activity in gyms is consistent with the health and safety of fighters and that gyms are properly licensed (only seven of the many gyms in New York were licensed when Berlin took office).
  • Updating the standard NYSAC bout contract and other commission forms.
  • Instructing that boxer information sheets be translated into Spanish and Russian.
  • Holding regularly-scheduled staff meetings to ensure that NYSAC personnel would know what was happening and could support each other.
  • Overseeing four educational seminars for NYSAC inspectors, two for referees and two for ring judges.
  • Successfully advocating for raises for commission inspectors from $52 a day to $100 a day and for deputy commissioners from $104 a day to $150 a day. These were the first increases in their pay in 25 years.
  • Updating the commission’s inadequate computerized record-keeping system.

“My philosophy for running the commission was simple,” Berlin says. “I believed that the commission should be run in a way that’s professional, open and transparent. I also believed that integrity, ability, and knowledge of boxing should take precedence over political considerations in the hiring and assignment of employees.”

Hoover was greeted with high expectations when he succeeded Lathan as NYSAC chairperson on June 16, 2015. Many people (this writer included) respected Hoover and thought he would partner well with Berlin in making a stand for what was right. But things went wrong from the start.

“Hoover’s way of doing things is to shoot from the hip without thinking things through,” Berlin later said. “I’m not even sure he’s capable of thinking things through.”

By way of example: Hoover unilaterally issued an edict that cornermen were not allowed to give instructions to their fighter during rounds. The time-honored tradition in boxing is that a fighter’s seconds are allowed to shout instructions as long as they remain seated, stay under control and refrain from berating the opposing fighter or referee. Hoover’s view, as expressed to Berlin, was, “If a boxer needs to be coached during a round, he should find another job.”

Hoover’s edict led to an outpouring of anger from cornermen and confusion among inspectors, who were unsure what was and wasn’t allowed as Hoover vacillated back and forth on the policy, sometimes changing his position during the course of a single fight card.

Hoover also decreed that all fighters must wear new gloves, which added substantially to the costs incurred by promoters on small club shows. Berlin quotes Hoover as saying, “If a promoter can’t afford new gloves, he shouldn’t be in the business.” Eventually, that edict (like the no coaching from the corner rule) was rescinded. But Berlin recalls, “So much time and energy were spent internally to counteract Hoover’s wrong decisions that it cut into our ability to work productively on behalf of the commission and the boxing world.”

“Some of the idiocies,” Berlin continues, “were almost comical.” On Oct. 16, 2015, he recounts, Gennady Golovkin and David Lemieux weighed in for their fight, which was scheduled for the following night at Madison Square Garden. Hoover was overseeing the glove selection process and tried to weigh the fighters’ 10-ounce gloves on the same scale that was used to weigh the fighters.

Berlin also believed that Hoover was exercising poor judgment in the assignment of officials. One of those officials – a longtime inspector named Dorothea Perry – was the godmother of middleweight Danny Jacobs.

Prior to Jacobs’ Dec. 5, 2015, fight against Peter Quillin at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Berlin sent a list of inspectors assigned to each fighter to Hoover for his approval. Joe Shaffer, one of the NYSAC’s better inspectors, was assigned to Jacobs. Hoover replaced Shaffer with Perry. That resulted in a flurry of objections from commission personnel, including Eric Bentley (NYSAC director of boxing at the time), who was incredulous that Hoover was replacing a highly-regarded inspector with a fighter’s godmother. Eventually, Jim Leary (counsel for the Department of State, which oversees the NYSAC) was brought into the deliberations and Shaffer’s assignment was restored.

Perry was already on the Inspector General’s radar by then. A June 19, 2014, memorandum written by Kenneth Michaels (investigative counsel for the Inspector General’s office) recounts that Perry had asked to speak with him that day. The Michaels memorandum then states, “Perry told me that she had worked as an inspector the bout before the Abdusalamov fight and had not seen it but had a few comments. … After the fight, she saw the doctors who examined Abdusalamov at the Golovkin fight [which followed Abdusalamov-Perez] and speculated that they might not have taken sufficient care of Abdusalamov because they wanted to see the last fight of the night. I asked her if she had any other basis for this speculation. She said she did not.”

More significantly, in June 2014, the inspector general’s office was in the process of investigating whether one or more NYSAC employees had sought to orchestrate an illegal work stoppage. There was no suggestion that Perry played a role in organizing the stoppage. But after the Inspector General’s office began investigating the matter, she sent an email to Ralph Petrillo (who’d been dismissed as NYSAC director of boxing) and copied 48 commission personnel. That email had language in it that could have been construed as part of an effort to defuse the inspector general’s investigation.

Berlin wanted to dismiss Perry from her position as an inspector because he believed she had failed to properly carry out her duties on multiple occasions. Perry, in turn, filed a complaint against Berlin, accusing him of discriminating against her on the basis of age and race. Previously, she had filed similar complaints against Ron Scott Stevens (a former NYSAC chairman) and Felix Figueroa (a former NYSAC chief inspector). A Google search reveals that Perry also filed at least two lawsuits alleging racial discrimination against a private-sector employer.

Berlin says he was later told by Executive Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Giardina that there was a finding of “no probable cause” with regard to Perry’s complaint against him.

Perry was retained as an inspector. Hoover later advocated for her appoinment as a deputy commissioner. That effort appears to have ended with his resignation as NYSAC chairman.

Meanwhile, Hoover had created an environment in which some employees no longer felt comfortable in properly performing their jobs. On one occasion, he issued contradictory directives at a pre-fight meeting of commission personnel and openly mocked an inspector who asked for clarification.

A commission judge felt Hoover’s wrath at an Oct. 29, 2015, fight card at Aviator Hall in Brooklyn. The judge was wearing loose-fitting pants because of a medical condition. Hoover ordered him into the woman’s restroom (to the consternation of a woman who was there at the time) and berated the judge for his appearance. According to one witness, Hoover was wearing black jeans and work boots at the time.

Female employees accepted Hoover addressing the staff at commission meetings as “you guys.” It was more problematic when, as noted by several people who were present, he told his inspectors that they should “grow some balls.” Three inspectors were assigned to the menial task of covering the entrance to restricted hallways at an Aug. 1, 2015, fight card at Barclays Center. All three were women.

Other employees complained that, after a year on the job, Hoover still didn’t know their names.

Berlin felt that Hoover went out of his way to undermine his authority and embarrass him in front of commission personnel. On one such occasion – Golovkin vs. Lemieux – Hoover changed the seating arrangements in the ringside commission area about 20 minutes before the fight card began. Berlin and two other employees were removed from their customary location at the front-row work station. According to Berlin, he asked Hoover why the change had been made (since it separated him from the table where many of his tasks were to be performed). Hoover answered, “That’s the way it is.” Berlin told him he was being “childish.” And Hoover responded: “OK, so I’m a child.”

“He’s a bully who yells at people who can’t yell back,” Berlin says of Hoover. “But bullying and shouting aren’t a substitute for competence.”

But there was a more serious matter to be addressed. Berlin also believed that Hoover was violating the law. On Dec. 1, 2015, he met with Special Deputy Inspector General Philip Foglia and Investigative Counsel Kenneth Michaels to outline his concerns. On Dec. 23, Michaels advised him that the inspector general’s office would further investigate the matter. Berlin returned to give sworn testimony on Jan. 7, 2016. Eric Bentley testified the following day. Hoover was questioned on Feb. 16.

Some of Hoover’s alleged misconduct was at worst a minor abuse of power. For example, the inspector general’s office was told that, prior to a July 24, 2015, fight card at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, Hoover parked his car (with a state placard in the window) in a restricted area where the on-call ambulance was supposed to be. When told that the ambulance crew wanted to park there, Hoover said they should park in a nearby spot and left his car where it was.

More significantly, the inspector general’s staff determined that Hoover had abused his position on multiple occasions by putting his son and others on lists of people authorized to receive credentials that enabled them to sit at ringside in the restricted commission area. The first time this is known to have occurred was at the Aug. 1, 2015, fight card at Barclays Center, when Hoover arranged for a credential to be given to his son under a pseudonym and also to a family friend.

Ironically, as Hoover later acknowledged, shortly after that fight card (which featured Danny Garcia vs. Paulie Malignaggi), he forced an inspector to resign because the inspector had asked for and received a free T-shirt from the Malignaggi camp.

“How does that fit with Hoover’s handling of credentials for his son and friends?” Berlin asks. “Everyone knows that taking the T-shirt was wrong. But Hoover also knew that what he was doing with the credentials was wrong, which is why he put his son on the list under a fake name.”

There was more.

On Nov. 13, 2015, Berlin was reviewing a list of licensed judges before assigning officials for a Dec. 5, 2015, fight card at Barclays Center when he saw an unfamiliar name: “Ron Abraham.”

Checking NYSAC records, Berlin saw that Abraham had been issued a judges license on Oct. 29. But after communicating with amateur officials and looking at BoxRec.com, he determined that Abraham had never judged a fight in the professional or amateur ranks.

Berlin sent an email to Hoover that day asking if Hoover had licensed Abraham.

There was no response.

A second email to Hoover sent five days later also went unanswered.

Finally, on Nov. 20, Berlin emailed Hoover a third time, sending a copies of the email to multiple NYSAC and Department of State personnel, including Anthony Giardina.

Giardina suggested a conference call to resolve the matter. Hoover told the group that Abraham had been applying to become an inspector, not a judge, and “I gave him the wrong application.”

That same day, Glenn Alleyne (the NYSAC Community Coordinator) sent a letter to Abraham advising him that his license was “deemed null and void ab initio” because “various necessary statutory prerequisites for licensure such as experiential requirements, training requirements, and the certification of passage of a written exam have not been met.”

But that’s not the whole story. Evidence gathered by the inspector general’s staff supports the proposition that this wasn’t an inadvertent error.

Hoover had personally handed Abraham’s application to Glenn Alleyne and told him to license Abraham. Alleyne was responsible for processing applications from people seeking positions as referees, judges and timekeepers. Athletic Activities Assistant Ana Rivas was responsible for processing the inspector applications.

Also, Abraham had filled out a five-page application. At the top of each page, the application stated in solid capital letters and large type that it was an “APPLICATION FOR PROFESSIONAL BOXING JUDGE.” On page three, the application asked, “Do you now or have you ever held a license as a professional boxing judge in any state, jurisdiction, or territory?” Abraham checked the “no” box. On Page 4, the application asked, “Do you have experience judging sanctioned amateur boxing matches. Again, Abraham checked the “no” box.

On Page 4, the application read, “State your qualifications as a boxing judge.” Abraham answered, “At an early age, I became a student of the sport of boxing courtesy of my father, a lifelong follower of the sport. I have watched hundreds of amateur and professional matches over the past 35 years, both live and televised. I have also studied and followed the careers of many great boxers. I believe the knowledge I have acquired regarding the sport of boxing through my years of watching and studying the sport make me a good candidate for a boxing judge.”

Abraham (according to the application he submitted to the NYSAC) is an experienced attorney admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey. It strains credibility to suggest that he (or anyone else) thought he was applying to be an inspector.

It should also be noted that the cover letter Abraham sent to Hoover with his completed application suggests a personal relationship between them in that it asks Hoover to give Abraham’s regards to Hoover’s wife and is signed “Ron.”

Millions of dollars and a fighter’s career can turn on a judge’s scorecard. The Abraham incident raised questions regarding Hoover’s credibility and also his attitude toward judges.

Meanwhile, the tug of war between Hoover and Berlin continued.

On Feb. 16, 2016, Anthony Giardina called Hoover, Berlin and Eric Bentley into a meeting and told them that, henceforth, they’d be reporting to Deputy Secretary of State Charles Fields instead of Giardina. Initially, Berlin was pleased. Recalling his early interaction with Fields, he says, “Charles clearly defined our roles. I was to be in charge of the day-to-day operation of the commission, while the commissioners would be the ultimate policymakers.”

But Berlin’s optimism was short-lived. On Friday, May 13, 2016, he was summoned to a meeting by Giardina. Fields was present but didn’t speak. According to Berlin, Giardina told him, “We no longer have confidence in your ability to run the commission.” Giardina then said that Berlin was to have nothing more to do with the NYSAC and instructed him to report on Monday morning to the 20th floor at 123 William Street, where a desk and a position in the Department of State’s legal department would be waiting for him.

Berlin says he asked Giardina why he was being terminated and was told there had been “too much turmoil” during his tenure. He then asked, “What makes you think I’m qualified to work in the legal department?” and was told, “Well, you’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

Berlin declined to take the new job that was offered to him. Instead, on May 16, 2016, he sent a four-page letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo in which he referenced wrongdoing at the commission (including acts that he believed to be criminal) and the politicization of the NYSAC to the detriment of its mission. He says that he never received a response, nor did anyone from the governor’s office reach out to him for further information or say, “Tell us what else we should know.”

Hoover and Fields declined to be interviewed for this article.

For a while, it looked as though the storm would blow over. Then, on June 23, the New York Times published an article by Dan Barry headlined “Hired to Clean Up Boxing but Pushed Out of His Role.” The article referenced some of Berlin’s allegations and noted with regard to the NYSAC, “Mismanagement, patronage and piecemeal corruption pepper its history.”

Next, on July 25, the report of the inspector general’s office on its investigation of the New York State Athletic Commission was released. That same day, it was announced that Hoover had resigned as NYSAC chairperson.

A source at the NYSAC says that chief medical officer Dr. Barry Jordan also offered to resign but that his offer was declined, in part because no succession plan is in place.

Potential witnesses are now being contacted and asked whether they will testify before a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of New York. The ongoing investigation in the Southern District of New York could have more significant implications.

“Look under a rock,” says an insider familiar with the situation. “Then look under the rock next to that one and the rock after that. There’s a lot of bad things now, crawling around under the rocks at the New York State Athletic Commission.”

Read Part II of this series.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book (“Muhammad Ali: a Tribute to the Greatest”) was published in the United States by Pegasus Books and in the United Kingdom by HarperUK. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He is a consultant to HBO Sports.