|05-19-2001, 11:25 AM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: NetShrine WHQ
Lesson here: Never let your lawyer hold your balls.
Saturday, May 19
Feds question Engelberg's business dealings
ESPN.com news services
Federal agents are investigating the sale of Joe DiMaggio memorabilia and are believed to be focusing on the Yankee Clipper's longtime lawyer, sources told the New York Daily News for Saturday's editions.
Three people questioned by the FBI in the past six months said investigators directed questions at lawyer Morris Engelberg's business dealings with DiMaggio, who died of cancer in March 1999, the newspaper reported.
Engelberg was accused in a recent best-selling book of trying to set up sales of DiMaggio-signed baseballs in 1998 without the dying Hall of Famer's knowledge.
Engelberg vigorously denied the allegations. The Florida-based lawyer said he has not been contacted by law enforcement but thinks investigators may be going after peddlers of phony DiMaggio keepsakes.
"I worked with the FBI in San Francisco and in Miami to stop (forgers)," Engelberg said. "Ninety percent of Joe's stuff out there is forged."
The investigation, which is being led by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White's office, was prompted by articles in The News and Richard Ben Cramer's biography, "Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life."
Cramer's book, published in October, alleged that Engelberg made a secret deal with memorabilia salesman Scott DiStefano to profit from the sale of a special lot of 2,000 balls commemorating Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 27, 1998 -- the Clipper's last public appearance.
Engelberg and DiStefano allegedly schemed to buy the balls at cost, have DiMaggio sign them and then secretly sell them on the memorabilia market. The Daily News obtained an unfiled lawsuit against Engelberg and DiStefano that alleges the two stood to earn $400,000 on the deal.
The FBI has requested that Cramer turn over copies of taped phone conversations between Engelberg and DiStefano that Cramer obtained in researching his book, a source told the Daily News. Cramer would not say whether he has cooperated with the FBI.
The tapes allegedly show how Engelberg put his financial interests above DiMaggio's -- telling DiStefano to make a priority of selling the 2,000 balls.
"Do you think you can sell these at $200 apiece?" Engelberg is quoted as asking DiStefano. "I'm talking about my balls. I'm not talking about his balls. ... I'm going to make the money on my 2,000 - not him."
"Him" referred to DiMaggio, according to the book.
Engelberg acknowledged the taped conversation, which he characterized as an "illegal wiretap," but told the Daily News he was not out to hoodwink DiMaggio.
"When I say 'me' (on the tape), it's me on behalf of my client Joe DiMaggio," he said. "It's me as a personal representative of the estate."
Engelberg said DiMaggio approved of the extra 2,000 balls. "Joe directed me in writing to purchase those balls for him," the lawyer said. "He said, 'Buy them in your name.' "
Sources familiar with the Engelberg-DiStefano tapes said they were made by DiStefano's boss Bill Rodman, whose B&J Collectibles had an exclusive deal with DiMaggio's Yankee Clipper Enterprises to sell memorabilia. But the arrangement between B&J and Yankee Clipper disintegrated in a sea of lawsuits, which were settled out of court.
Rodman's lawyer, Dennis Oury, confirmed that the FBI had questioned Rodman but said he does not believe his client is the target of an investigation.
DiStefano, asked whether the FBI has approached him, said: "I can't talk about it. All I can say is that a lot of stuff (in Cramer's book) is untrue."
Spokesmen for the FBI's New York bureau and the U.S. attorney would not confirm any DiMaggio-related probe, but the feds have been actively investigating the memorabilia business. Since 1997, the FBI's Operation Bullpen has netted more than 30 guilty pleas.
Engelberg said he had planned "momentarily" to file a defamation suit against Cramer and his publisher, Simon & Schuster.
"When Joe died, I could have filed a claim (for legal services) against his estate in excess of $5 million," Engelberg said. "Why would I take 2,000 balls from him? It doesn't make sense."
The Clipper's brother, Dom DiMaggio, who has had a strained relationship with Engelberg, said he's sorry to hear of the rancor over the estate.
"Isn't it a shame?" DiMaggio said. "For my brother's sake, I hope it isn't true."
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