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Shaq's snub leaves a mess

Plenty of fingers are pointing after the basketball star misses a charity appearance, but no one is sure who is to blame.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, JEFF TESTERMAN and JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002


Plenty of fingers are pointing after the basketball star misses a charity appearance, but no one is sure who is to blame.

TAMPA -- A weekend benefit that offered children and fans a chance to meet Los Angeles Lakers' star Shaquille O'Neal is proving to be a public relations fiasco.

Parents are demanding a refund of the $250 per ticket they paid for a two-day basketball camp. The Ice Palace says it has come up short after renting the venue to a promoter. A charity says it got stuck bankrolling the promoter, rather than benefiting from his efforts. And a lawyer who helped get the extravaganza rolling is suing the promoter.

Still unclear Monday was who was at fault.

Did O'Neal jilt Tampa Bay, or did an overzealous promoter offer something he couldn't deliver?

Madison says he's not to blame.

"We are still not completely sure why he did not show up," said Madison, a 45-year-old promoter who is no stranger to accusations of monetary shortfalls.

He has a history of financial woes, including liens and unpaid loans, according to courthouse records. Last month, Madison landed in jail on charges that he forged a signature of a former business partner to get a loan.

The Los Angeles Lakers said they were told by O'Neal's representatives that he could not attend the weekend fundraisers because he was hospitalized in Orlando with a 103-degree temperature on Thursday night.

"As far as I know, he wasn't able to attend because he was ill," said Michael Uhlenkamp, assistant director of public relations.

A spokesman for Orlando Regional Sand Lake Hospital said O'Neal was released Friday.

The chief investor in the celebrity weekend has another interpretation of what went wrong. Jean Augustin, a Philadelphia businessman, said he is out a $75,000 loan partly because of a dispute between Madison and O'Neal's camp over how much each side would get through the venture.

Worsening matters, Augustin said, corporate sponsorships were lost because of bungled communications involving O'Neal's agent and uncle, Mike Parris. He doesn't blame Madison.

"I think they mean well," said Augustin, 44. "I just didn't think they had the power, the knowledge or the funds to do something like this."

Madison is a former New Yorker who formed Paramount Celebrity Management Inc. solely for the O'Neal event. Madison said he made no money off the weekend because the events were poorly attended.

He insists he hasn't bilked anybody and doesn't owe ticket holders anything. He said he paid O'Neal's representatives $50,000.

"I would not jeopardize the community, the mayor, the governor, for some forgery of not having Shaquille O'Neal come to town, for some get-rich-quick scheme, because the bottom line is when he doesn't show, you lose everything," he said.

Tampa Bay Reads, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy, was supposed to get 50 percent of the weekend's proceeds, executive committee member Mike Suarez said.

Madison hasn't cut the charity a check, Suarez said.

Instead, Paramount couldn't foot the bill for Friday night's dinner at the Marriott Waterside that promised an appearance by O'Neal. Rather than cancel on Gov. Jeb Bush, who attended, and patrons who spent $150 each on tickets, the charity covered the outstanding $8,900 tab.

"I've been on nonprofit boards for seven or eight years," Suarez said, "and this is a first."

Madison paid the Ice Palace a $5,000 deposit to rent the venue Sunday for a "Meet and Greet" with O'Neal and the game.

But ticket sales didn't cover the remainder of what Madison owed, said Bill Wickett, Ice Palace vice president for public relations. Only about 2,500 attended the game, Wickett said.

As a consolation, arena officials gave away tickets to a preseason basketball game between the Detroit Pistons and the Miami Heat. But disappointed spectators still jammed the ticket counter.

Those with $250 tickets, the most expensive, were given partial refunds, "despite the fact that Paramount did not want us to," Wickett said.

Madison's money troubles go back a decade. A bad check he wrote in 1991 has dogged him for years, he said.

Other problems are more recent. Madison is part owner of a computer services and Internet company, Provider Technologies Inc. On July 20, he was arrested, charged with forgery and fraudulent use of personal identification. He is accused of signing a loan application with the name of his former business partner, Robert Little.

Little's name was signed Oct. 18, 2001, the application shows. But Florida corporate records show Little resigned from the company four months earlier.

The California company that issued the loan has sued for $31,034.

A suit against Madison by the U.S. government over an unpaid student loan resulted in a $1,650 judgment. A foreclosure suit led to a $52,697 judgment.

On Monday, Tampa lawyer Ronald D. Cook sued Paramount in Hillsborough County Court over $2,176 allegedly owed for legal services related to the celebrity event.

Of the controversy surrounding the event at the Ice Palace, Cook said, "A lot of people are justifiably upset at what happened."

One of them is Mattie Cole. The former postal service worker shelled out $250 so her 11-year-old nephew could attend the basketball camp with his hero, and $140 for two tickets to take her 14-year-old daughter to the game Sunday.

The boy, Braelen Adams, came to the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida on Saturday morning to welcome O'Neal. When the star didn't turn up, they came back Sunday.

Again, no O'Neal.

"He didn't cry," Cole said, "but I could see the disappointment in his face."

Some 250 children had tickets. Almost all got them from Paramount, Sun Dome spokesman Clark Brooks said. The nine parents who paid the Sun Dome directly are welcome to get refunds, Brooks said.

O'Neal, who might soon undergo surgery on his arthritic big toe, created a row in Los Angeles when he missed the funeral for Chick Hearn, the popular Lakers' radio broadcaster who died Aug. 5.

But Augustin, the main sponsor for the Tampa event, said he never doubted the star would show. He received a faxed memo from O'Neal's agent confirming the superstar's arrival as late as Tuesday.

Augustin wants his money back. It was supposed to be repaid in time for him to pay his son's college tuition. School starts today.

"I don't want to tell you what I'm going through," Augustin said.

-- Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Jackie Ripley, Ernest Hooper and Babita Persaud contributed to this report. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at wexler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

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