Cigar Aficionado

Personality: The Fixer

Once a renowned Mob boss who helped fix sporting events, Michael Franzese makes the case that he's a good fella now

"I agreed to plead guilty to two of the twenty-eight counts filed against me -- federal racketeering and tax conspiracy. I was given a ten-year prison sentence, was forced to forfeit nearly $5 million in assets, and promised to give the government 20 percent of my future earningsā€¦until I had paid another $10 million in restitution. "As part of the deal, I also agreed to plead guilty to the sixty-five counts charged against me in Florida, which included racketeering, grand theft, conspiracy, theft of state funds, uttering a forged instrument, and failure to account for taxes collected. The nine-year Florida sentence would run concurrent with the ten-year federal sentence. A $3 million Florida restitution fee would come from the $15 million federal agreement. "In addition to the pleas, I privately promised to quit the Mob." -- from Quitting the Mob, by Michael Franzese (with Dary Matera)

Michael Franzese sits down in a Marina del Rey deli with his back to the front door, just like you're never supposed to. He places his cell phone beside him on the banquette and orders matzo ball soup.

At 51, he looks a decade younger. He might be any of the other entrepreneurs who live out their easy lives in the seaside town, running businesses from the balconies of their condos and the cabins of their sailboats. There's an air of success about him, and the trappings, too. He has an expensive car and a California tan. His ribbed white shirt accentuates a muscular build that's one part genetics, three parts gym.

Once upon a time, Franzese was the Yuppie Don, the captain of New York's infamous Colombo crime family. Like Michael Corleone of The Godfather, he represented a new generation of Mob boss. He loved making money and living well. In photos from that period, he wears expensive clothes and dark sunglasses and looks more like Tom Cruise than John Gotti.

Opinions differ as to whether Franzese ever killed a man as part of the traditional Mafia initiation rite. Regardless, Franzese had little taste for violence. He specialized in white-collar crime, helping companies defraud shareholders, skimming profits off of legitimate businesses. He helped organize a gasoline tax scheme that cost the federal government millions of excise tax dollars and dipped into illegal gambling. He even tried to alter the outcome of sporting events, which brought him back into the news last summer. With it all, he made more money for the Mob than any man since Al Capone.

Franzese has been out of the life for a decade now, working as a force for good. He meets with federal agencies and talks at schools, offering his personal history as a cautionary tale. "I was as bad a guy as anybody out there," he says. "I should be dead or in jail. That would be just restitution for me, as far as society is concerned. For some reason, God said, 'That's not going to happen to you.'"

Out of a converted ranch-style home near Los Angeles International Airport, he runs a ministry and a small post-production house that specializes in youth-oriented film and television projects. He's writing a book for a Christian publisher. He coaches Little League.

He also consults for sports leagues, including Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, and for teams, college conferences and associations. A lifelong fan, he provides an insider's perspective on how to try to prevent the kind of point-shaving and game-fixing schemes he used to be part of. "And by no means was I the biggest player," he notes. "I myself wasn't a bookmaker, I just controlled certain operations. There were certainly a lot of my associates who played a much bigger role in that than I did. That was their thing."

He gives presentations to the leagues and their athletes, even talks with troubled players who may owe a bookie more money than they can get their hands on. He understands the temptation to make it all back with a fumble or a dropped fly ball. "You try to educate them and warn them and safeguard the leagues as much as you possibly can, but it becomes a matter of personal integrity more than anything else," he says. "And you're never going to get 100 percent of them."

It is likely, Franzese says, that he has watched sports events in recent years that have been tampered with, although he has no idea which ones. "The possibility and the probability are definitely there," he says.

When Michael Franzese emerged from the Metropolitan Detention Center in California in 1994, he did so without a legitimate profession. What he offered society was a working knowledge of the Mob. That doesn't get you far in most businesses, but it's golden in Hollywood. He'd already dabbled in movies as a Mafia enterprise, so he moved to Los Angeles and worked out a deal with Universal Studios consulting on scripts. If there was an organized crime reference, it was run by Franzese to make sure it rang true.

Franzese's input had to be highly fictionalized so it wouldn't offend anybody on the inside. "I didn't ask [the Mob's] permission," he says. "But I'm never going to publicly get up and say all Mob guys are this, that and anything else. Because that's what I was. Who am I now to say, 'These guys are bad and I'm good?'"

He refuses to provide details about crimes that he or anyone else committed. "I have a real problem pointing a finger at someone and saying, 'This guy is doing wrong, put him in jail,'" he says. "Please understand that. I never felt it my mission to go against organized crime. I'm not a law enforcement person. That's not my job."

But when asked a question, he tries to answer it truthfully. It doesn't matter if the question is part of an investigation or an interview, or if he's at home with his wife. He can't always tell the entire truth, but he won't lie. "I don't want to come off like I became a good guy overnight," he says. "It's not that. I have things that I still battle with every day. But I honestly, with all my heart, believe that I'm blessed to be given a second chance. When you're blessed to be given a second chance and you don't take the opportunity, you become a fool. I don't want to think of myself as a fool."

In that vein, Franzese agreed to appear on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" last summer to talk about certain sporting events in the late 1970s. He had nothing to gain from talking publicly and plenty to lose, beginning with his life. "He will get whacked," Bernie Welsh, a retired FBI agent and organized crime expert, has said. Going on television isn't exactly a way for a man who may have a contract out on his life to stay incognito.

But Franzese feels bad about what he used to do. He understands the element of trust inherent in organized sports, and the role he played in undermining that trust. He wants to make amends. "There's something inside me now that makes me care," he says.

There was nothing self-aggrandizing about the HBO interview. He answered questions quietly, politely, firmly. If he'd been a witness at a trial, you'd have to say he was extremely credible. He wouldn't pinpoint which games that he and his associates attempted to fix. He wouldn't reveal which sport, let alone which teams, was involved. He spoke in generalities.

The New York Yankees were named by HBO's Bernard Goldberg during the report -- though not by Franzese. Through a spokesman who hadn't seen the segment and didn't know Franzese, the Yankees reacted angrily to the accusations. They denied that any Yankees game could possibly have been fixed, as if they would have known about it. They cast aspersions on Franzese's character, apparently unaware that he now consults with MLB and the NBA.

For a couple of days afterward, Franzese was all over the back page of the New York Daily News and the New York Post. He became the story. In the furor, the larger point was lost. It didn't matter so much what Franzese did then. What matters is now.

Between sips of soup, Franzese picks up the thread of where the conversation with Goldberg should have gone. Pro and college sports are at risk today, he says. That game you watched last night may have been completely on the level. But, then again, it may not have been. This is the message he tells the leagues and the NCAA when he meets with them. This is what he wants the American people to understand.

"Professional sports and collegiate sports are both tremendous, tremendous revenue sources for illegal activities," he says. "As long as that exists, the criminal element is going to look to exploit it. We did it fairly successfully back then, and I have every reason to believe it's going on today. If you're a bookmaker, or a gambler gambling with a bookmaker, you're always seeking an edge. A professional or collegiate athlete is going to be a target for you."

The situation has hardly changed since 1920, when crime boss Arnold Rothstein and former featherweight boxing champion Abe Attell were accused of fixing the previous year's World Series. Gamblers want to bet on sure things, and they do what they can to create them. "Obviously for a gambler, the optimal situation is to have some influence on the outcome of a game through a player or referee," Franzese says. "The way it happens is, somebody will get involved with an athlete, and the athlete will get influenced and perhaps drawn into a problem. It takes on its own life from there."

Organized crime is rarely organized. There's no grand plan, just opportunities. "Gamblers trying to gather information or gain an edge from a player will normally do so in their own backyard, so to speak," Franzese says. They're less likely to stake out a potential player or team halfway across the country and check into motels in Des Moines or Fayetteville stalking players. They tend to take what falls into their laps. A lead can come from a friend or associate, but also from spending time at a sports bar close to a college campus.

"Gamblers are usually plugged in pretty well," he says. "They're always listening when it comes to getting an edge on a game. The savvy ones will fly under the radar, but remember, they're trying to make money. They need a team, a game, that has a line. Big, small, doesn't matter. Depending on the circumstances, it might be one big hit from a big school, 10 from a small school, or vice versa. Whatever situation presents itself."

When Franzese was active, a Boston College basketball player named Rick Kuhn tried to shave points during the 1978-79 season in a scheme masterminded by the Lucchese crime family's Henry Hill, whose life became the basis for the 1990 Martin Scorsese movie Goodfellas. Kuhn was later convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In the years that followed, college players from respected institutions such as Tulane and Northwestern were also found to be shaving points, even attempting to lose games. As late as 1997, two Arizona State players admitted taking payoffs in return for tampering with games during the 1993-'94 season. Who knows how many other players on other teams were involved who didn't get caught?

The more desperate a situation an athlete finds himself in, the more desperate the measures he'll resort to in order to get out of it. Knowing that, gamblers seek to befriend athletes, especially those who have been known to place bets. They're looking for information, such as who's fighting with his wife or has an injury that isn't known. But they also want to establish a rapport.

That's one reason pro leagues don't like to see players gambling publicly in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or even on the golf course. The perception is a problem -- and often the gambling is, too. "If a player has gambling tendencies, then obviously you know that's a player you might be able to reach out to," Franzese says. "They're going to be in a gambling element. They're going to go to Vegas. People are going to know who they are. If Michael Jordan is in Vegas and he's gambling, don't think there aren't 100 sharks standing around him. They're looking to get close to him, to say hello, maybe make a friend."

If a player likes to bet at a casino, he also might want to get into a high-stakes poker game in a hotel room, or place a lot of money on the Super Bowl. A professional gambler will be happy to facilitate that. And since gambling almost inevitably leads to losing, a player just might find himself in debt to his new friend.

Sometimes he can pay off that debt with one flourish of a checkbook, such as the $57,000 payment that Jordan made to a man named Slim Bouler that appears to have covered losses from a golf game. Or the $200,000 that another shady character named Richard Esquinas said Jordan paid him to settle a $900,000 gambling debt.

Not every athlete has Jordan's resources, however. A gambler may suggest that he can make up what he owes and more on one game by merely holding down the score. The athlete sees it as an easy way out, especially with two broken legs as a possible alternative. Just one time, win a game by six instead of eight. Win the game, sure, but don't cover the point spread. What would it matter? "They can more easily justify that in their minds," Franzese says. "Who are they hurting, as far as they're concerned?"

The next thing you know, a game you're watching on television may be under the influence of the Mob. Once you realize that, every error, dropped pass or air ball begins to look suspicious. The fan sees one thing; the trained eye sees another.

"Let me tell you, I look at everyone as being shady," Franzese says. "It's the kettle calling the pot black or whatever that saying is, but that's just my experience. I don't care if it's the president of the United States or somebody running a major company -- I know they have a larcenous side to them. In many, many cases, I exploited that."

Franzese has a look in his eyes that says he has stories he would love to tell. Who knows how the history of sports in America would read if we all knew what Franzese knew. And what he doesn't know, he can guess at. Where others see coincidences, he sees connections. "Michael Jordan, who knows why he dropped out for that year?" he says. "Remember all the gambling issues that were occurring during that time? When his father was killed? Believe me, the NBA did what they could to make it go away."

How deep Franzese's involvement ran can't be determined, not at a deli in Marina del Rey. It is known that he ran into Henry Hill once at Terminal Island Prison, a federal penitentiary near Los Angeles. Hill turned white when he saw Franzese and begged to be transferred to solitary confinement and then a different facility. For some reason, he was certain Franzese would try to kill him.

Franzese's conversation is peppered with phrases that sound as if they would resonate in a Mafia summit meeting, a bunch of chairs pulled into a circle in the back room of some so-called social club. "Let me tell you something," he says. And then, "Please understand this." Or, "I hope I'm making myself clear here."

It isn't hard to extrapolate the person Franzese used to be from who he has become. "I still live my life," he admits. "I'm still ready if someone wants to challenge me. I'm not going to sit there and let somebody punch me in the nose, you know what I mean? I haven't changed that much in that regard. But I have a different conscience about it now."

So when he stands before athletes and tells his story, when he admonishes them to stay away from gamblers, racketeers and other unsavory characters, he does so with credibility. They tend to listen. "It happens almost every presentation," he says. "Players come up to me after the talk with problems. And we'll talk about them and usually go to the league personnel and deal with it that way."

The salaries in professional sports are now so high that occasional fixing of games is far less likely than before, unless a player gets in deep trouble with no way out. But in college, the temptation remains great. "You have guys who think, 'Hey, I hear what this guy is saying, but when am I ever going to make 100 grand? When am I ever going to make the pros?'" Franzese says. "You get some kids who might have been stealing half their lives before they get to college. And they say, 'This is my shot. I'm not hurting anybody, and I can help myself.' How do you change that mentality?"

Franzese tries. Every uncorrupted game that's played is a tiny victory for him. He played baseball as a kid and had aspirations. As it happened, he just ended up on a different team, with teammates who had nicknames like Frankie Gangster and Champagne Larry.

A New Yorker born and raised, he's a big Yankees fan, which is a small irony considering what transpired last summer. He still goes to games when he can, exulting in the victories and taking the losses hard. Maybe it reminds him of his childhood, when he didn't know what he knows now.

Yet even when he was in the life, he followed the Yankees passionately. He was riveted to the television on the night of October 18, 1977, when Reggie Jackson hit three World Series home runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was at the height of his involvement in sports gambling, but it didn't matter. "Huge thrill," he says.

Franzese knew there was a chance, however small, that those games he watched weren't on the level. Yet such is the power of sports to entertain and enthrall that it didn't dampen his enthusiasm a bit. Even as he was undermining the process, he was exulting in it. Call it naivete or innocence, a willful bit of denial or a latent purity of the heart, but it helps you understand why he's making such an effort now. Even a mobster needs his heroes.


Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.