Meltdown man

John Spano was just a dull, two-bit Dallas businessman before he tried to buy a professional hockey team. Now he's been charged with bank fraud, and his claims of wealth and business prowess are dissolving in the glare of scorching publicity.

"I can empathize with the league in many ways," says Lites, who sat on the NHL Board of Governors for 15 years. "We've done four to five transactions in that time, and the board's effort is always focused on achieving something both sides want--a sale. They wanted to facilitate John Pickett's desire to sell the team and marry it with a guy who had the assets and desire to buy it. Fleet Bank stepped up with the money, and everything looked good. If anyone looks bad in all this, it's the bankers."

A Fleet Bank official refused to discuss the case, citing the pending case against Spano. News reports last week noted that Fleet and NHL officials are now negotiating ways to restructure the $80 million loan.

But another factor seems vital in understanding the Spano debacle: simple ego. There was more than just money involved; there was the power and prestige of owning a piece of the Dallas Stars, or the Florida Marlins, or the New York Islanders. And apparently, Jim Leslie, president of the Staubach Company, wanted a piece of the action.

On July 24, the day after John Spano was arraigned on the bank and wire fraud charges in Uniontown, New York, Jim Leslie discussed his association with the defendant. Like so many others, Leslie is working hard to distance himself from Spano. They were never actual partners, at least not until Spano made his bid for the Islanders. Even then, Leslie says, he never really had an interest in the hockey team. His interest was more in the real estate potential of the area around a new arena on Long Island.

Leslie's acquaintance with Spano goes back to 1995. He says he was introduced to Spano by investment banker Robert Innamorati, who has business links with the Staubach Company. Innamorati, in turn, says he met Spano through Max Williams, a former SMU All-American basketball player and a Dallas businessman. A secretary at Williams' firm, U.S. Companies, said he would not return phone calls from the Observer. Court filings do not link Williams to Spano's alleged criminal activities in any way.

"Bob [Innamorati] was working with John on the Stars deal," Leslie says. "Bob's thinking was assuming that John would acquire the team, there very well could be a new arena and some real estate issues around that. So it would be good for us to be potentially involved."

Innamorati says he had a deal with Spano that hinged on the sale of the Stars: If Spano was successful, Innamorati would be paid a fee for his help in setting up the transaction. "I was never a partner. I had no equity. The deal didn't close, and I didn't get paid a fee," he says.

Likewise, Leslie says he never invested any money in the Stars. But more than a year later, Leslie would again join with Spano--this time as an important element in the proposed purchase of the Islanders. "Instead of John paying us a fee, I took a small interest in the team," Leslie says. "Then down the road, after he reportedly had closed the deal in April, he approached us [Leslie and three other Staubach employees] for a loan."

According to the federal complaint, Leslie and the other three men loaned Spano $1.4 million in exchange for the Staubach Company being designated as the master developer on a new arena on Long Island. "We know about real estate, but we don't know much about hockey," Leslie says. "We never felt like we should own a hockey team."

He is adamant that his investment with Spano was outside the official ranks of the Staubach Company. But Leslie's number-two position at Roger Staubach's firm must have helped wannabe sports czar Spano exude the prestige he was after.

Last week, prosecutors revealed that Leslie's loan is in default. Investigators also say that $1.25 million hockey star Lemieux invested with Spano--ostensibly for shares in a company about to go public--likely went somewhere else. Though Spano returned $360,000 of the investment to Lemieux, another check for $2.5 million bounced. Lemieux is not commenting.

Just 12 days before Spano was arraigned, still another Dallas company--Richmont Capital Partners--filed a civil lawsuit in Dallas against him, claiming breach of contract, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. Richmont principals John Rochon and Nick Bouras claim in their suit that Spano approached them in March 1997 seeking a short-term loan of $1 million. They provided the loan "based upon representations of Spano regarding his strong financial condition." Richmont was also satisfied with Spano's vow to put up as collateral a $2 million certificate of deposit--issued by Comerica Bank.

Spano was to repay the full principal on the loan, plus 10 percent interest, by March 31. The deadline came and went. By June, according to the lawsuit, Spano had promised Bouras several times that the money had been wired to Richmont, but it had not. On July 3, Richmont got a court order to seize the promised CD. Spano refused to comply with the order. "Richmont has now gained information and believes the collateral is no longer in existence," according to document in the case. The CD has never turned up.

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