tampabay.com

Referee not gambling with choice of lawyer

John Lauro made his reputation with high-profile cases, but he prefers to work quietly.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published July 31, 2007


TAMPA - The phones buzzed on the 21st floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa.

News of the federal investigation into an NBA referee suspected of betting on games he officiated rocked the sports world last week. But the furor escalated when he hired Tampa lawyer John Lauro.

Lauro has a reputation for representing whistle-blowers, the New York Daily News breathlessly noted. Speculation rose that Bradenton referee Tim Donaghy would implicate others in the league.

Suddenly, Lauro's office was fielding 50 interview requests a day from media outlets across the country.

"It's been a media circus," said Lauro, 49. "It's frustrating for my client. It's frustrating for me because you want to get your side of the story out. But you can't do anything that might jeopardize the case."

This isn't the first time Lauro has found himself the subject of media attention. The former federal prosecutor specializes in white-collar criminal defense. Since moving to Tampa in 1988, he has built a reputation for being prepared, thorough and fearless in the courtroom.

Lauro has represented everyone from a Wall Street businessman accused of working with the Mafia to an unhappy diner who skipped out on his bill because he was displeased with the amount of seafood on his pasta.

But Lauro says his most successful cases are the ones no one ever hears about.

"My goal, when I represent businessmen, is to get them in and out as quickly as possible," Lauro said, "without any publicity at all."

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Donaghy, 40, who refereed for 13 seasons with the NBA, resigned last month. Authorities are examining whether, during the past two seasons, he made calls to affect the point spread in games on which he or associates had wagered.

According to the Associated Press, Donaghy had a gambling problem and was approached by low-level mob associates through an acquaintance. Donaghy is expected to turn himself in to authorities next week.

Lauro said he can't comment on the case. However, during a news conference in New York Tuesday, NBA Commissioner David Stern said Lauro told him a plea deal may be in the works.

The lawyer divides his time between Tampa and an office on Park Avenue in New York City. He maintains homes in both cities: an apartment in Murray Hill, a residential area just south of Grand Central Station, and a two-story Mediterranean-style home on Davis Islands.

His is a boutique practice, with two other associates in his office. But his list of clients is long.

"He's been involved in virtually every high-profile case that comes through Tampa," said Gary Trombley, a Tampa lawyer and Lauro's longtime friend. "There's only a handful of people who typically get those calls, and he's one of them."

One of Lauro's biggest triumphs came in 2004, when he represented Tampa nightclub manager Dewayne Allen Levesque, who was nabbed in a prostitution sting.

The manager of the Pink Pony, Levesque faced charges of racketeering, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting prostitution. He was found not guilty after Lauro raised questions about the Tampa Police Department's tactics, including the decision to allow investigators to touch the breasts and pubic regions of the club's dancers.

"It was the first time a client physically picked me up and hugged me after a verdict was read," Lauro said, chuckling.

Last year, Lauro represented Ralph Paul, the New Port Richey man charged with defrauding Angellino's Italian Restaurant after he left without paying a $46 tab.

Paul argued that the Palm Harbor restaurant shouldn't have charged him for his meal because the amount of seafood on his shrimp and scallop verdura was inadequate.

Jurors sided with Paul, but the case touched off a public outcry, with restaurateurs vowing to bar Paul from their establishments and some people labeling him a spoiled bully.

Lauro said he admired his client's stance. It was the job of the jury, not the public, to judge the facts of the case, he said.

"I've never been swayed by public reaction," he said.

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Lauro grew up outside New York City, on Long Island's Jones Beach. The son of a department store manager and a school district employee, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer by age 12. After receiving his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University and a year in private practice, Lauro worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York.

He moved to Tampa in 1988 with his wife, Darlene. They later divorced.

Colleagues say they're not surprised to see Lauro at the center of a big criminal case.

Robert O'Neill, criminal division chief in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, got to know Lauro when he represented witnesses in several federal trials. Lauro was always prepared and thorough, O'Neill said. "When a client hires him, he really gets involved in the case," he said. "By the time he brings a witness to us, he has totally debriefed that person."

Lauro says 15-hour workdays are routine. He is juggling several cases beyond Donaghy. He represents Faisal Islamic Bank of Sudan, accused of funding terrorist activity. He flies back and forth from South Carolina to represent the former president of Medical Manager, who faces charges of accounting fraud and money laundering.

It makes for a busy schedule.

But Lauro wouldn't change a thing. "I love it," he said. "This is my life. It's my passion."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com