Sources: Union aid for ex-VP probed

Updated: May 23, 2012, 12:45 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

NBA players' union executive director Billy Hunter utilized union funds to support former NBA forward Charles Smith's attempt to overthrow the National Basketball Retired Players Association, sources say, one of several maneuvers that inspired union president Derek Fisher to call for a business review of the union's activity.

The players' union is currently being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, sources have confirmed.

Recent reports by both Yahoo! Sports and Bloomberg News detailed a number of other expenditures and hirings made by Hunter without executive committee oversight. The financial support of Smith is another one, sources said.

Smith, a former players' union vice president and staunch supporter of hiring Hunter in 1996, was ousted as NBRPA executive director in the fall of 2010 after pursuing deals that violated its existing group licensing agreements without executive committee approval.

Hunter
Hunter

Several months later, as Smith fought to win back his position, the NBPA's late lead counsel, Gary Hall, told a retired players' association representative that the NBPA was in full support of Smith, would pay his legal fees and play "the race card," if necessary, sources said. Smith is black and Danny Schayes, selected to replace him, is white. Hall's comments were made, sources added, with Hunter present.

The hiring of Hall, a close friend of Hunter's for more than 30 years, prompted accusations of cronyism from several player agents because no formal job search was conducted. Hall, 67, died last spring. Schayes could not be reached for comment.

The NBPA's support of Smith resulted in the players' union withholding its annual contribution of $300,000 to the retired players during the height of the dispute and hiring the law firm Blitman-King to work on his behalf, sources said. The players' union's 2010-11 expense report filed with the Department of Labor shows that Blitman-King received a total of $31,608 from the players' union, although the reason for the payments is not identified. Hall worked for Blitman-King before Hunter hired him as his lead counsel in 2005.

Smith and several supporters attempted what retired players' association sources refer to as "a coup" during the 2011 NBA All-Star Weekend, demanding that the executive committee that ousted Smith step down en masse for abusing its power. Smith has since started a separate organization for NBA retired players called the Professional Basketball Alumni and sources say Hunter is now splitting the annual $300,000 contribution between the PBA and the NBRPA.

All these maneuvers were made and fees paid without the knowledge of the players' union's executive committee at the time, a committee source said. It is not clear if or when members of the executive committee were informed after the fact.

Arnie Fielkow, a former New Orleans politician hired as the NBRPA's CEO last fall, declined to comment on the battle with Smith but did indicate there was a rift with the NBPA at one point.

"We do have a relationship back with the union again," he said. "We're looking to strengthen that relationship."

Hunter also declined comment, a union spokesman said, and senior partner Bernard T. King of Blitman-King did not return a call to his office. Smith also refused to address his relationship with Hunter, writing in a text, "I wish the RPA leadership well. I hope they find some more important things than to be concerned about the Professional Basketball Alumni. Sounds like they want me back. Lol."

After initially supporting Fisher's request for an independent review of the players' union's activity, the eight-man executive committee reversed its position and asked Fisher to step down as union president, a request that Fisher has refused.

Several labor attorneys, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the legality of Hunter's maneuvers would depend on the players' union's by-laws.

"I don't think you can say it's illegal, per se," said Ronald Schechtman, managing partner and chair of Pryor Cashman's Labor and Employment Group, of Hunter using union funds without executive committee approval. "Each organization develops its own relationship between senior management and the board. Hunter has been there forever. There's more latitude than there would be with a newer executive."

The question in supporting Smith so aggressively is whether the players' union had any business picking sides and using its resources to undermine an organization meant to serve its constituents in the future. Supporters to have Smith reinstated were able to gather only 90 signatures, roughly 15 percent of the 500-plus players with an NBRPA membership, at the time, a source said.

"It raises questions as to why [Hunter] didn't inform the board about something so political," Schechtman said. "There are times when an executive director and the board become part of a conflict. [But] there's a fair question of whether he was acting for the good of the organization or he was going rogue."

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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