Thursday, May 15, 2014

Basketball court: Shawna Vercher vs. Tim Donaghy

A Florida House candidate’s legal battle with an infamous former NBA referee.

Posted By on Thu, May 15, 2014 at 1:52 AM

click to enlarge Shawna Vercher. - KEVIN TIGHE
  • Kevin Tighe
  • Shawna Vercher.

In June of 2012, a Pinellas County jury deliberated for less than two hours before awarding former NBA referee Tim Donaghy $1.3 million in his civil trial against Shawna Vercher and her company, VTi Media. The jury ruled that Vercher had withheld proceeds from the sale of Donaghy’s memoir, Personal Foul, which VTi Media published. With legal fees later added on, VTi was judged to owe Donaghy $1.7 million, and Vercher herself to owe him $1.525 million. Five months later, she declared bankruptcy, and has refused to publicly comment on the case.

Until now.

Vercher, 37, was a Pinellas political and media consultant and radio talk show host whose career included stints working as a technology advisor to former Gov. Jeb Bush and a consultant to Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign while heading VTi-Web, a web media company focused on helping small businesses compete online. She hosted a weekly radio show for years on AM 820 and was a syndicated columnist for the Huffington Post.
click to enlarge Tim Donaghy
  • Tim Donaghy

But her personal and professional life was knocked upside down during the brief but tumultuous few months when she worked with Donaghy in late 2009 and early 2010, shortly after he had been released from prison after serving 13 months on federal wire fraud and gambling charges.

She’s now telling her version of what happened in a book, A Fearless Voice: How a National Scandal Made Me an Advocate for Building a Better America, self-published earlier this year.

But that’s not all. She’s attempting to parlay her personal story into a platform for political office, and is running as a Democrat in FL House District 67 for the Clearwater-based seat being vacated this fall by a term-limited Ed Hooper.

But she has her critics, who say that the jury’s verdict and the facts on the ground speak louder than her new book about events over the past four years.

So let’s go back to the fall of 2009, when this tale begins.

Vercher had never heard of Donaghy until she attended a marketing conference in Atlanta in October of 2009 and overheard NBA executives yukking it up over the fact that they had successfully thwarted him from publishing his memoir with Random House. The memoir described his descent into gambling addiction, revealing how he was able to bet successfully on NBA games by analyzing certain refs’ subjectivity, revelations that some believe the NBA has never successfully refuted.

Not a huge NBA fan, Vercher looked up Donaghy (whom she refers to as “Larry” throughout the narrative). She learned that, although he had admitted to betting on basketball games, he had never actually been convicted of fixing them, a crucial distinction for her. “I sensed a David vs. Goliath story and I was outraged,” she writes, explaining how she felt compelled to work for the former referee.

A month after first hearing about him, Vercher met up with Donaghy, a Bradenton resident, at a Panera Bread in Sarasota following his release from prison. He hired her company, VTi Media, to publish and market the book and handle his media appearances. Had he fixed any games? she asked him. Of course not, he replied. In fact, she writes, he told her he could show her a polygraph test that proved that he’d passed — a polygraph he alluded to in Personal Foul.
click to enlarge news_b-ball_donaghy_book_cover_051514.jpg
According to Vercher, the initial printing of 10,000 books of Personal Foul sold within three weeks. But just a few months later, this budding professional relationship would go seriously sideways, with the referee ultimately claiming Vercher hadn’t paid him any royalties from the sales of the book, leading to his lawsuit in 2010.

Vercher’s book, A Fearless Voice, is not always easy going. The narrator’s suffering rises to Job-like proportions, and the justice system she describes is so suffocating it recalls Kafka’s The Trial. Here are some of Vercher’s key claims in the book:

• Immediately after Donaghy’s first media appearance following his release from prison, on CBS’ 60 Minutes, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in New York City contacted Vercher to inform her that, as part of a deal Donaghy had made with the office, he didn’t have the right to publish his book or earn any money before clearing it through them. That meant that because she had a business contract with Donaghy, and because he planned on using royalties to pay off nearly $200,000 in restitution, “We had just unwittingly agreed to do business with the U.S. government looking over our shoulder… Almost overnight our business was paying for Larry’s crimes.”

• Donaghy’s next interview was with ESPN’s Henry Abbott, who asked the ref whether he had fixed any games that he officiated. Vercher’s book reasserts a claim she made in an interview with Abbott on his ESPN blog, TrueHoop, in 2010 — that when she suggested Donaghy take another polygraph test to alleviate Abbot’s concerns, Donaghy replied that he wouldn’t be able to pass it. (Abbott reports that Donaghy denied Vercher’s claim, saying he’d “absolutely” agreed to take another polygraph test, with this caveat: “I just want the questions to be very clear about what fixing a game is and what fixing a game is not. I don’t want to end up having a problem with that. As far as, did I fix games? I absolutely did not fix games.”)

For Vercher, the possibility that Donaghy wouldn’t have passed the polygraph test threw their entire business relationship into question.
“How could I have been so STUPID?!?” Vercher writes. “I completely bought his entire bunch of crap! The idea of him being an addict. The idea that he wanted to make an impact in the world and show his kids that he was a good man. The idea that he was anything other than a creep that had just used me to try and keep the Feds off of his back for rigging one of the largest sporting enterprises on the planet.”

• Concerned about the polygraph issue, Vercher made moves to get out of her contract with the referee. But, she says in the book, Donaghy caught on to what she was doing after reading a blog post by Benjamin Daniel, Vercher’s estranged brother and former employee.

click to enlarge news_b-ball_shawna_book_cover_051514.jpg
• In the book she refers to a Philadelphia reporter named “Phil” who off the record fed her information about a number of run-ins the former ref had had with local police in both Pennsylvania and in Manatee County. (A May, 2010 story by William Bender of the Philadelphia Daily News quotes Vercher as saying that Donaghy had physically threatened her, claiming he had friends in the Gambino crime family.)

• Vercher claims, as she did in testimony during the 2012 trial, that her assistant, Christal LaFountaine, who had access to a checking account, was ripping her off. Vercher says she’ll never know the full amount, but claims it’s somewhere between $30,000-$100,000. (A Largo police detective named Lara Young countered these charges during the trial; she testified that she had investigated the case and found that such a crime did not occur.)

• In her trial against Donaghy, the judge in the case struck all of her witnesses, and according to Vercher hurried the case along to get it done within a week’s time.

“I am a human being and I definitely trusted the wrong people,” Vercher said during one of two interviews with CL in our Ybor City offices. “I trusted the system a little too blindly and quite frankly didn’t see it coming.”

She says that she still fears Donaghy, and points to a Facebook exchange from this February, in which Donaghy tells a friend, “I am going to chase her for the next 50,” and follows up with “her time will come.”

Through his attorney, Donaghy informed CL that he doesn’t want to comment on Vercher’s claims.

The original contract between the pair called for Donaghy to pocket 73 percent of all revenues from book sales, Vercher 27 percent. According to documents filed by Vercher’s attorneys in their appeal, the final accounting showed that while the Department of Justice had determined a ceiling of $51,263 in estimated royalties owed to Donaghy as of November 2010, because of expenses VTi had incurred from unsold books and legal fees dealing with Donaghy, she wound up $28,584 in the red. (Vercher says that with bills still mounting, that figure may be higher now; the attorney figures used for the appeal were “snapshots in time,” and more expenses were later added.)

An economist who testified for Donaghy in court alleged at a minimum that $245,000 in total revenues had come into Vercher’s company, minus expenses. Nick Mooney, Donaghy’s attorney, says there was “no documentary evidence offered at trial by Vercher’s lawyer to support the claim that they had expenses in excess of revenue.”

One fact that both sides agree upon: Donaghy never received a dime from Vercher from sales of Personal Foul.

Vercher claims that she simply didn’t get a fair trial, with Pinellas Circuit Judge Pamela Campbell frequently shooting down her attorney’s objections. Campbell refused to allow any of Vercher’s witnesses to testify because of a tardy disclosure of those witnesses before pre-trial conference.

A review of 2012 trial transcripts shows some cause why the jury may have decided against Vercher. In addition to the testimony of the Largo police detective disputing Vercher’s accusations against LaFountaine, Vercher was also damaged by extensive discussions during the trial of a website she created called For the site, she directed staff members to post articles and incident reports from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office regarding domestic disturbances at Donaghy’s home, harassing phone calls, and an incident in Delaware County, Pennsylvania in which police charged him with setting fire to a tractor owned by a neighbor, and taking a golf cart owned by that neighbor without permission and driving it into a ravine. [CORRECTION: The Delaware County incident was alleged by Tim Donaghy's neighbor in a complaint to a local country club. No police charges were filed against Donaghy. Creative Loafing apologizes for the error.]

The preparation of such a website was viewed negatively in the courtroom, with one of Vercher’s former employees, Casey Minton, saying she was “uncomfortable with it.”

“Of all the things that Mrs. Vercher says, the jury rejected every bit of it, okay?” says Mooney. “Not me. Not Tim Donaghy. Not Judge Campbell. Six citizens of the community who were selected by this county to serve as jurors. That’s our system.”

In CL’s two conversations with Vercher, the aspiring state representative was confident about successfully appealing the verdict (the case now resides in the District Court of Appeal Second District of Florida), and about her life going forward.

“What pushed me to the point of running for office was the same reason that drives so many people away from politics, which is utter frustration with what I was witnessing,” Vercher said. “I’m just a regular person who has gone through an extraordinary circumstance, and because of that, my hope is if I could show people that I could do that, then they would feel that they could get more involved.”

Her book ends with a detailed chapter of recommendations for changing the justice system based on her own travails. Some sound naïve (the legal system should not be an exclusive club where only people with money have access) but others touch on aspects of current law that only somebody who has been through the system can bring to the fore, such as how criminal and civil records need to be brought into the 21st century and shared among states.

“The guy [Donaghy] made very good use of the fact that there were different police stations in different communities,” she says about the fact that many of his brushes with the law in Pennsylvania were not accessible to her, living in Pinellas County.

But the question is — how does she translate her issues into articulating the hopes and dreams of the voters in HD 67?

“I don’t believe it’s fair to the voters to make this the focus of the campaign,” she says about the recent past. “So once it’s addressed, we intend to focus on the problems that actually face many of the voters in the district.” She does believe, though, that her issues transfer to the community.

She also says she’s being completely transparent about her story. “Voters have a right to know, and organizations who may endorse or just want to know me better as a candidate, we’re providing free electronic copies to anyone who asks for them.”

She says the purpose of writing the book isn’t to make money, but to change parts of the system that as a middle-class white woman she now realizes everyone may have to deal with.

Vercher’s path to the Democratic nomination for the House seat is no gimme. There are undoubtedly some Democrats who hold it against her that she worked for Jeb Bush’s administration in Tallahassee. The radio program she hosted through Genesis Communications was promoted as a “non-partisan call-in,” but she also worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

She faces two Democrats in her August primary — Stephen Sarnoff, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 3179, and Thomas Ryan, who works for Dairy Mix, a St. Petersburg-based business. Ryan told CL that he believes Vercher is a “fine person,” and doesn’t intend on running a negative campaign against her.

Sarnoff, however, is a different story. He questions Vercher’s Democratic Party bona fides, alluding to her tenure under Jeb Bush as well as her work with AMIkids, a nonprofit alternative school that according to Sarnoff shows that she supports taking money out of public education.

“That’s not my idea of a Democrat,” he says.

And while he’s never heard Vercher's version of events, he has an idea of what happened with Donaghy. “She says that this money I’m making for this guy, I can use it for living expenses, I don’t have to give him a dime. That kind of doesn’t make any sense to me. That shows a kind of character flaw, you know?”

Other voters may decide the same thing — or not. But that may not be Shawna Vercher’s only concern. Her appeal in court may not take place for another year or two.

“If the court process works properly, then all the evidence gets heard, all the witnesses get heard, and the jury makes a decision,” she says, optimistic that when the entire truth comes out, she’ll be exonerated.

That remains to be seen. But in the interim, what will registered Democrats in House District 67 think? That answer will come much sooner. 

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