The mob's Mr. Fix-it

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 11:34 AM ET

Michael Franzese has gone from an athlete's worst nightmare to guardian angel.

The son of reputed Colombo Family underboss John (Sonny) Franzese, his criminal empire included gasoline bootlegging, gambling operations and multiple businesses that brought in $6 million-$8 million a week.

He was also a silent partner in the sports management agency fronted by Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom who, federal investigators claimed, used Franzese's name to frighten college athletes into joining Walters' agency. By the mid 1980s, Franzese was ranked 18th on Fortune Magazine's list of the Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.

"I've seen a lot of tragedy. I've seen more families broken up and more lives destroyed over gambling than either drugs or alcohol and that's a heavy statement for me because I had a sister who died because of an overdose of drugs," Franzese says.

A lot of that tragedy came courtesy of Franzese. He was not a very nice man to know. That was yesterday.

Today, he lives in California with his second wife, speaks to church groups, works for the FBI and counsels college and professional athletes on how to avoid the guy that he used to be.

"I tell them straight out, I wasn't your friend 12-13 years ago. As a matter of fact, I ruined a lot of your lives because I didn't care. We had a big gambling operation. We had athletes gambling with us. It was a business for me," Franzese said in an interview with Sun Media. "I tell them how we put athletes in trouble and how it could happen today."

He has spoken about organized crime and the dangers of gambling at more than 400 college campuses and acts as a consultant to almost every major professional sports league, including some in Europe.

"People have raised eyebrows when they ask us for speakers and we recommend somebody who is a former organized crime member," says Rachel Newman Baker, director of the agent, gambling and amateurism department of the NCAA. "But he's hands down the best on this issue. People listen to him."

Curious how that can happen when a captain from the mob walks into the room.

"I tell them if I've got 300 of you in this room, 100 of you are gambling on something right now, whether it's poker or sports. Every time I say that the eyes go down, there might be a sideways glance. The statistics bear me out and I might even be a bit low."

When he walks out the door, he leaves his e-mail: michaelfranzese@gmail.com; his website: michaelfranzese.com or says he can be contacted via Facebook or Twitter.

"I tell them I don't want to know your name. We can talk through it and it has never failed yet -- I've done over 400 schools and before I get back to my hotel room that night I've got e-mails from kids in that room. Every. Single. Time."

Franzese is the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away, without protective custodies, and survive. He puts a face to a menace that otherwise seems like something out of a fairyland. Gambling, unlike steroids, drugs or guns, doesn't sound quite so dangerous. But then, today's hobby evolves into tomorrow's addiction. And, for an athlete, today's buddy becomes tomorrow's loan shark.

Franzese (pictured at right) has seen it happen; he has made it happen.

"It's a worldwide dilemma and the reason is because of the accessibility of gambling today," Franzese says. "I just came back from Europe where they're concerned about cricket matches being compromised by organized crime. It's what all the leagues, the Big Four, tennis and soccer, are all concerned about."

Research shows college and professional athletes are more prone to gamble than the general population.

"It raises the stakes in the competition and that's what athletes are all about," Franzese says of gambling's lure. "If you have a compulsive, addictive personality, gambling should be up there on the radar screen with drugs, alcohol, pornography. It's an addictive vice. Gambling gets their juices flowing."

Which helps explain Michael Jordan sitting in a casino the night before a playoff game.

It sheds light on how NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley -- who claims to have lost $10 million gambling over the years -- can end up getting sued in a Nevada state court for failing to repay $400,000 in credit to a casino company.

"They gamble, and they gamble heavy," Franzese says of professional athletes, "but mostly they can cover their losses, they're making plenty of money." It's when the losses can't get paid that the big trouble -- the loan sharking, the demands for inside information, the point shaving -- begins.

It is that murky business that attracted the Colombo Family and Franzese to Walters/Bloom.

"My interest when I took it back to the boss of my family was ... 'look we're going to be around players. What better way to get close to the players. It'll benefit us in the gambling industry. I know they gamble. I know they'll gamble with my bookmaker and it will be a tremendous edge.' He said go for it."

Later in court, and after Franzese was in jail for racketeering, Maurice Douglass, who played with the Bears and Giants for 11 NFL seasons, would testify that he was told someone would break his legs if he deserted the sports agency. Former Kansas City running back Paul Palmer was defrauded of his signing bonus and court was told that Texas football player Everett Gay was told "someone" could fix it so that he'd never play again.

There is a reason major sports leagues and the NCAA have rules against associating with gamblers. Franzese tells how his group used to work:

"Pro athletes would seek out a bookmaker. I would tell the bookmakers working for me to give them all the credit they want; give them $50,000, if they want to bet $150,000 let them because for us it's a paper transaction. Let them lose as much as they can lose on paper. In time they have to answer for the debt.

"What I used to do was say, 'OK, you owe us 100 grand. Can you pay it by Monday?' No. 'Can you pay it next week?' No. 'Right, here's the deal. I'm going to let you pay me 2% a week on the outstanding debt until you find a way to pay me back.' What am I doing? I'm getting him deeper into a hole. He can't pay that kind of money. Finally, when all else is gone, we bring him back in and say, 'Hey, here's what we're going to do. The only way you're going to wipe out this debt is to help us. We need information. What's going on in the locker room?'

"If it's a player of substance, you can affect the outcome of a game. You pick games where the point spread can be manipulated by one player, where a fumble or interception could mean something. You have that player working with you now because he has no choice.

"Over a season, you can make some money and wipe out the debt. At the end, everyone is happy except the player because once he does this he is in it for life. He's done. Because now you've got something hanging over his head. Basically, you ruin the poor guy."

Sometimes, it doesn't start or end with anything nearly so sinister. But it's still bad news for the athlete. Trouble can sometimes come, says Franzese, from just a guy "you're hanging out with. Gamblers are always looking for an edge. So the guy you think is your buddy is just trying to get information out of you."

If there is a guaranteed solution, Franzese isn't aware of it.

"I don't think reading about Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley has an impact. Gambling is so powerful. The marketing is so strong. It's so appealing to people that you're swimming upstream with this. I don't see any way to legislate this away. I got questioned a lot when (referee Tim Donaghy) went down that the NBA isn't doing enough. I said, 'listen, they all have an anti-gambling policy ... Unless you can scare the heck out of (players) one on one, I don't think just reading the stories has an effect.'"

Remember Bloom? He was acquitted on appeal, then found murdered in a hotel room. While no connection linking the murder to Franzese was ever made, the Colombo crime family is thought by law enforcement to have contributed to his death.

If that doesn't scare off some bets, maybe nothing will.

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A WHO DUNNIT

- In October 2007, Russia's Nikolay Davydenko becomes the centre of the match-fixing controversy in tennis. Five Italian players are later suspended in another gambling investigation.

- Frederico Luzzi is fined $50,000 and suspended by the ATP for 200 days for betting on matches. He becomes the fifth Italian tennis player to be punished for betting on matches.

- Dolphins' Will Allen faces investigation for pulling a gun in a dispute over gambling debts.

- John Daly says he has lost between $50 million and $60 million during 12 years of heavy gambling. He recalls earning $750,000 when he lost in a playoff to Tiger Woods. Instead of going home, he drove to Las Vegas and lost $1.65 million in five hours playing mostly $5,000 slot machines.

- Shawn Chacon, former MLB pitcher, is facing a felony charge of passing three bad $50,000 cheques to cover gambling debts at Caesar's Palace.

- Two days before the 1994 Super Bowl, Art Schlichter is sentenced to 25 months in prison for passing bad cheques. If not for the fact that he is a compulsive gambler the former first-round draft pick might have been the starting quarterback in the game.

- In March 1991, MLB all-star Lenny Dykstra, a notorious high-stakes bettor, is linked to a gambling probe in Mississippi.

n In Antoine Walker's 13-year NBA career, he made at least $110 million, but apparently today he's broke. Walker will be going to court this week in Las Vegas to answer to charges of fraud for writing bad cheques -- totalling $1 million -- to different casinos.

- In Swaziland, a prominent club director with the Manzini Wanderers soccer club took 200,000 euros from the club coffers in cash, went gambling in a local Casino, and lost.

- Tim Donaghy, a former NBA referee, is sentenced last year for 15 months after he said he took thousands of dollars from a professional gambler in exchange for inside tips on NBA games -- including games he worked.

- Pete Rose, the best hitter in baseball history, remains a Hall of Fame outcast.


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