Archive for Law Enforcement

Albany’s Historic Student Ghetto: Kegs N Eggs Mark the Spot

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Albany, New York isn’t just the seat of a clown car state government– it’s also a college town. And college students, when boozed to the gills, can out-bozo politicians. (Well, almost.) On March 12th crowds of drunken students rioted in the Albany neighborhood known as the student ghetto. The lads and lassies, most of whom seemed to be from UAlbany (a major campus of the State University of New York aka SUNY), had prepped for the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade with hours of bar crawls and Kegs and Eggs house parties. Eventually the breakfast bunch spewed out onto the frosty streets.

The Albany Student Press claims that the Albany police, in an effort to tamp down the annual festival of collegiate binge drinking, had rousted the house parties. Pushing participants outdoors where “frat boys and sorority chicks”* joined them in solidarity. The non-student press hasn’t mentioned any rousts. Whatever. Hundreds of students milled in the streets, wearing neon green tees and bellowing like cattle on jimsonweed. Smaller groups commenced to trash. Cars were pushed into the street and smashed. Appliances were hurled from balconies. Cans and bottles flew. Several cops were tackled. Most (though not all) in the crowd laughed to see such sport. Their cellphones captured the riot. YouTube took it viral. Suddenly, all eyes were on Albany’s student ghetto.

Albany pols and college officials freaked. Were they riled by the riot– or the nationwide publicity?

Callow binge drinkers have been stampeding in the student ghetto for years. And not just during the daze of St. Pat’s. A brief search of YouTube turns up numerous vids of students from UAlbany and the College of St. Rose (a private university adjacent to the student ghetto) making merry on many occasions. Heck– I lived on the edge of the student ghetto in 2000/2001 and can personally attest that every weekend, except for ones during breaks and vacations, was a holiday in the hood. Or should I say– a party in its mouth? The sidewalks were a mosaic of greasy pizza boxes, crushed beer cups, broken bottles, and vom. In winter the mosaic froze over, spring brought the big patty melt.

Walking through the student ghetto was an eyeball assault. Its once-beautiful two and three family homes were sinking into the sludge. Absentee landlords and young lugs living la vida transient don’t do upkeep. A virtual tour of the homes’ interiors can now be had on YouTube. Footage of semiconscious or completely zonked students being owned by their roomies is a staple on Student Ghetto, The Reality Show. If you look past the limp bodies in funny degrading poses, you can see the subdivided warrens, rats’ nest wiring, and broken windows covered with trash bags.

Code enforcement? What code enforcement?

I used to wonder if parents actually visited their kids’ digs. And what they thought if they did. After all, parents frequently pay for those digs. Some even send rent directly to the landlords. I also wondered if parents understood the intensity– and heavy underage aspect– of the student ghetto bar scene. It gave me quite a turn to see really young girls staggering out of bars blitzed blind and dumb. Particularly since the neighborhood is also a crime scene.

Muggings, assaults, and burglary shadow the student ghetto. Students are perceived as easy pickings; predators from other ghettos come to partake. In the autumn of 2008, a UAlbany senior was shot to death a few blocks from where I once lived. Drug trade? It’s like, historic. One street has an evil rep going back decades. From my window I watched deals going down on the corner of said street. The longevity of its rep made me cynical (wrongly, I’m sure) about notifying the Albany police. Instead I called the county cops and hoped for the best.

But back to Kegs and Eggs. Some 40 students were arrested. A few days after the riot YouTube footage was being used to identify more participants. Pictures taken from videos were released to the press. (Many of the alleged perps seemed in dire need of Clearasil.) Detective James Miller, official spokesman for the Albany Police Department, promised swift and certain justice.

On March 16th, a New York Daily News editorial blasted SUNY Albany for being known for “hard partying” rather than quality education. The editorial also denounced the “moms and dads” of the rioters, for contributing to a “culture you let sprout into criminal proceedings”. The next day, the first of the UAlbany students seen in the video pictures turned himself in. OMG! His father turned out to be Bob Sapio, senior executive editor of the New York Daily News. Was Dad’s face red!

Also red faced: Detective James Miller, official spokesman for the Albany Police Department. On March 18th Detective Miller (now on suspension) was arrested for allegedly driving drunk. In an official vehicle, while off duty. Miller apparently refused to take a breathalyser test. DWI cases can be more difficult to prosecute sans results from breath tests. In some cities, police officers aren’t allowed to refuse breathalysers. But Albany has its own way of doing things.

For instance, despite much local coverage of the Kegs and Eggs riot, plus related articles about housing conditions in the student ghetto, the neighborhood’s worst landlords have yet to be outed by the news media. And given the lack of code enforcement (a problem in more nabes than just the student ghetto) you’d expect some investigative reporting on who hearts who– politically speaking.

Another Albany oddity: the in-office longevity of Mayor Jerry Jennings. When Jennings ran for his first term in 1993 yes 1993 he waxed reformer about the student ghetto and vowed change. He renews those vows regularly. Particularly when public funding can be accessed via the vowing.

In April 2005, Mayor Jennings took an after dark walking tour of the student ghetto, accompanied by the late Kermit L. Hall, then president of SUNY at Albany. The town and gown twosome dialogued with students hanging in front of bars and tut-tutted over slum conditions. President Hall vowed to help rid the neighborhood of drugs, violence, and blight. Some $400,000 in government grants was set to flow through the New York State Division Of Criminal Justice into a “historic partnership”** between SUNY Albany and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC– as part of the crime fighting initiative Operation Impact. The Albany police were eventually outfitted with cool tech tools via Operation Impact. Department officials say crime in Albany is being fought more successfully thanks to those tools. Folks in and around the student ghetto aren’t convinced.

Operation Impact is one of many initiatives that over the years, have been accessed by Mayor Jerry Jennings and a string of area college officials in efforts to re-imagine the student ghetto. Yet somehow, the neighborhood remains a place where impressionable young oafs and oafettes pick up the perception that civilization is far far away.

But change may finally be in the wind. City officials are now making a concentrated effort to refer to the student ghetto as the Education District…

*Assigning blame for Kegs N Eggs melee, Albany Student Press, 03/26/11

**Governor Pataki Announces Historic Partnership with UAlbany and John Jay College to Develop Enhanced Crime Fighting Initiatives Impact, Office of the Governor Press Release, 04/04/05

 

 

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Gaming the Game: Baba, Elvis, and the NBA Betting Scandal

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Sean Patrick Griffin’s new book Gaming the Game won’t make disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy happy. In 2007, Donaghy was busted by the feds for conspiring with pro gambler Jimmy “Baba” Battista and their mutual boyhood pal, low-level drug dealer and all round dogsbody Tommy Martino. Donaghy had been supplying Battista with picks on games he refereed. (He was also betting those games through Battista.) Donaghy claims the devil, aka Battista, made him do it. Sean Griffin locates the devil that made Donaghy do it, in Donaghy’s own greedy soul.

Tim Donaghy, Tommy Martino, and Jimmy Battista had attended the same Catholic High School near Philadelphia. Tommy Martino was tight with both Donaghy and Battista. Donaghy and Battista were never close. But in late 2006, they became partners in crime.

Tim Donaghy’s version of events goes like this: after Jimmy Battista discovered through other gambling professionals that Donaghy was a gambling addict and was betting on NBA games, he extorted Donaghy into supplying NBA picks. According to Donaghy, Battista also threatened his family; implying that if Donaghy didn’t cooperate his wife and children might be “visited” by people from New York. As in, mob thugs. With 15 months in a minimum security federal prison behind him and an exculpatory book to peddle, Donaghy continues to paint Jimmy Battista in mobbed-up colors.

The Real Deal

Prior to conspiring with Battista and middleman Tommy Martino, Tim Donaghy was secretly betting on NBA games he officiated. He was also betting on games he didn’t referee, as well as other sports. By late 2006 he was dissatisfied with the paybacks he was receiving from his prime enabler (remember, we’re talking addiction) and switched to Jimmy Battista. Tommy Martino, a runner for Battista who also supplied him with drugs (as he did for Tim Donaghy), set up the meeting that got the NBA deal going. Jimmy Battista was stoked. “As a gambler, having an NBA referee tell you what games he likes was like taking a kid into a candy store and saying what flavor do you want.”*

As candy store guy, Tim Donaghy got a real deal; he didn’t have to cover his losses. Yes– he did make bad bets. According to Jimmy Battista, when Donaghy wasn’t referee his picks were much less reliable.

Jimmy Battista never asked Tim Donaghy directly if he was making calls to benefit his bets (don’t ask don’t tell being the rule) but he figured Donaghy “was going to do whatever it took to win”. Tim Donaghy maintains that all he did was handicap games from an ultra inside position. His winnings flowed from superior knowledge. The feds who prosecuted Donaghy never charged him with influencing outcomes. Though the plea deal Donaghy accepted did include a line about the possibility of his on-court performance being “subconsciously affected”. As for any lingering suspicions, Gaming the Game lays out new statistical research into the games Donaghy bet. Theoretically speaking, it does seem as if “Elvis” (Battista and Marino’s nickname for Donaghy, the King of NBA picks) might have shown his own interests a hunka hunka burning love.

Rest easy readers. Gaming the Game isn’t a compendium of statistical charts. Though important to the question of Tim Donaghy’s alleged doings, the stats are confined to an appendix. Plus, Gaming is far less about Donaghy than it is about the life and times of pro-gambler Jimmy Battista. As such, it’s a compelling character study and more historically interesting than a rundown of the corrupt actions of one greedy Gus with an edge. Sean Patrick Griffin, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Pennsylvania State, Abington, and a former Philadelphia police officer, combines an eye for human detail with the ability to convey broad social themes. He’s a fluid, crisp writer and an A-1 historian of crime. Griffin’s earlier book, Black Brothers Inc.,The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia, revealed a hitherto unacknowledged chapter in the history of crime in Philadelphia. Brothers was made into an episode of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) series American Gangster and has been optioned as a motion picture. Griffin’s knowledge of the crime scene in and around Philadelphia illuminates Gaming the Game.

Born in 1965, James “Jimmy” Battista grew up in a working class town near Philadelphia. He was a black sheep (hence the nicknames “Baba” and “Sheep”) in a close knit, morally centered family. His parents personified the work ethic. Despite his non-absorption of their other beliefs, Jimmy did soak up their attitude about work. From his early entry-level hustler jobs (as a cocaine distributing shoe salesman, he substituted coke for the silica salt packets in shoe boxes) through his learning curve as a paper-juggling bookie, to his glory days as a computerized pro gambler near the top of that industry’s legal and illegal ladder, Baba busted his hump. As an ultra successful pro gambler, he lived on the down low. No Damon Runyan excess, just a nice McMansion life with a wife and kids in a suburb forty minutes out of Philly.

Though Jimmy often worked at home, his family life was almost nil. He spent most of his time in the basement– in his home office slash betting center. Confabbing with other bettors and movers via Skype (harder to bug) and glued to a towering stack of TVs and monitors feeding him nonstop sports action and betting info from sources such as casinos and offshore sportsbooks. When a betting line made a mega move in say, Taiwan, a computerized voice alert (installed by Jimmy) would intone “Major Line Movement”.

When not busy in the basement Jimmy was on the go with his laptop and bag of cell phones. Doing business from other cities (including Vegas), other homes, and on park benches and in cars. He was a fan of T-Mobile, because buying a phone through them didn’t require ID. Sheep, as he was best known in the gambling world, used different phones for each major client. The phones were replaced frequently. His “disposable” phones were a major business expense; disposing of them was a job. The SIM (subscriber identity module) cards were tossed into rivers. The phones themselves went into an acid dip bath intended for cleaning restaurant grills. After the dip, Jimmy pounded the remains into smithereens with a hammer.

Then there was the hassle of transporting money and collecting debts. Re the latter, Sheep wasn’t a thug. He smashed phones, not faces. If someone welshed he just stopped dealing with them. Unrecoverable loss is part of illegal business. As for moving money, doing it in the U.S. was an exercise in paranoia. Think cross-state car trips with a million or so in cash stashed under the seats. Pit stops were fear stops. Sheep carried his food and water with him, along with a hospital “piss cup”.

Back in the Philly area, Sheep and his suburban, white-collar gambling colleagues were always worried that “the boys downtown” (Philadelphia organized crime of the Italian-American variety) would get ultra heavy with independent players. During one downtown mob war, Sheep and his then business partners temporarily relocated to Vegas, to dodge an expected rise in extortion demands.

By early 2007, Jimmy Battista was a slave to the rhythm. Years spent monitoring monitors and working phones while eating takeout had ballooned his weight. He took assorted drugs to ease the pressure of his work and had become addicted to Oxycontin. For the first time in his career he was betting while under the influence and losing like the suckers pro gamblers deride. He was heavily in debt, which was angering some of his most important business colleagues. His family was falling apart. And his always high paranoia level had been jolted to new heights by growing rumors of an FBI investigation.

Jimmy Battista did business with the crème de la crème of bookies and bettors. Some were mob connected. Apparently, an FBI team assigned to the upper echelons of the Gambino family in New York City picked up wiretap chatter about Tim Donaghy and his connection with Sheep. (The gambling world had been rife with gossip about Donaghy’s NBA betting for several years.) Another story says a mob-connected bookie with a business beef turned Sheep in. Whatever. What followed is history. All of which is covered extensively in Gaming the Game.

The research behind Gaming the Game is impressive. Sean Patrick Griffin, an academic and ex-cop, combines extensive reference to court documents, betting records, law enforcement files, and media coverage with on-the-ground interviews and multi-party corroboration. Gaming is also many leveled. Via its coverage of Jimmy Battista’s evolving career, Gaming is a history of the transition from paper-based betting to information age gambling. As a character study, it leads one to ponder the mysteries of human nature– and also, by implication, the mysteries of U.S. policies re gambling. Jimmy Battista was an immensely talented individual. Why chose a life so fraught with the dangers of (partial) illegality? Given his particular skills, Sheep could have been a contender on Wall Street. Where financial speculation, manipulating the odds, and a willingness to profit from another person’s fraud almost never brings down the feds.

Another character question: why did Tim Donaghy and Tommy Martino take plea deals and turn on Jimmy Battista while Battista kept his lip zipped? Sean Patrick Griffin has many interesting things to say about that. As he does about the overall legal and public relations strategies of “Team Donaghy”. Which he refers to as their “assault on justice”. As said, this book won’t make Tim Donaghy happy.

The NBA may not be thrilled either. Though Gaming the Game sinks some of the conspiracy theories that followed the scandal (including ones spread by Tim Donaghy) it poses plenty of hard questions about the NBA’s response to the Donaghy affair– and their ongoing stewardship. NBA officials (if they don’t feel too piqued) might find the section titled Some Suggested Research for the NBA quite helpful.

As example, since the 2003-2004 season the NBA has been collecting data on the calls and non-calls made by all referees. Though the collected data was originally intended for other purposes, current and future data will now also be analyzed with an eye toward spotting referees who might be fixing games. Sean Griffin suggests the NBA also make a retrospective analysis of the call data. Tim Donaghy claims that the winnings from his NBA bets (the ones which according to his plea deal concession, might have “subconsciously affected” his on-court performance) were fairly limited. Some folks, including a number of pro gamblers, think otherwise. Analyzing the data might clear up the issue once and for all. Plus, the suspicion lingers that other refs may have been gaming the game. A retrospective check for patterns of subconscious activity could help lay that suspicion to rest.

Back to Timmy, Tommy, and Jimmy. Before being busted Jimmy Battista entered drug rehab. After a lot of legal wrangling, all three men eventually served about a year in federal prison. As always, Tim Donaghy thought he deserved a better deal.

*All quotes in this article are from Sean Patrick Griffin’s Gaming the Game, Barricade Books, Inc.

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