The man who founded the IBF as an alternative to boxing sanctioning bodies he considered corrupt was acquitted today on charges he took bribes from promoters and managers to give good rankings to their boxers.
A federal jury deliberated 15 days before finding Robert W. Lee innocent on all but six of the 33 felony charges he faced, including racketeering.
Robert Lee Jr., who served as an aide to his father, was acquitted on all nine charges against him.
The elder Lee could face some prison time on the six convictions, which included tax evasion, money laundering and interstate travel in aid of racketeering.
Promoters Said Payoffs Were Routine
The verdict was a major defeat for the Newark federal prosecutors and FBI agents whose four-year investigation exposed unsavory practices long rumored to infect the sport.
Still pending is a parallel lawsuit brought by federal prosecutors.
The four-month trial featured damaging testimony from some of the biggest promoters in the sport, including Bob Arum and Cedric Kushner, who contended that routine payoffs were the price of doing business with the East Orange-based IBF.
Boxing’s most powerful promoter, Don King, did not appear, but prosecutors called him an unindicted coconspirator, maintaining he was the prime beneficiary of Lee’s manipulations.
Lee’s future in the sport is uncertain. The trial judge last yar stripped him of authority in IBF, which later named a new president and continues operating under the scrutiny of a court-appointed monitor.
Jurors Heard 80 Audiotapes
Prosecutors accused Lee and other IBF officials of taking $338,000 from promoters and managers virtually since the IBF’s inception in 1983 in exchange for favors and rigged rankings.
As one of the boxing world’s three major sanctioning groups, its rankings and decisions play a large role in the purses earned by boxers, of which managers and promoters get a cut.
Much of the prosecution case rested on conversations with Lee that were secretly recorded by C. Douglas Beavers, the longtime chairman of the IBF ratings committee and ousted Virginia boxing commissioner who became a government informant with immunity.
While Beavers was on the stand for 22 days, prosecutors played 80 audiotapes and three videotapes for jurors. Two of the videos showed Beavers and Lee passing cash in a Portsmouth, Va., hotel room.
The FBI confronted Lee after the third videotaped meeting on Oct. 21, 1998, but the former Union County homicide investigator and deputy state boxing commissioner was not interested in making a deal.
Two months later, he took a $25,000 payoff he solicited from promoter Dino Duva of Main Events to give junior middleweight Fernando Vargas a title shot, testified Duva, who is no longer with with Totowa-based outfit. Vargas remains the IBF champion.
The defense attempted to show that Lee was the victim of a “selective prosecution” of boxing’s only black-run sanctioning group, portraying Beavers, who is white, as a racist.
Lee lawyer Gerald Krovatin said promoters testified against him to hurt King, and maintained that Lee had a right to accept “gifts” and “gratuities” from business associates.
No boxers were accused of wrongdoing. Prosecutors did not charge that any fights were fixed, but testimony exposed the tactic of finding a credible, yet beatable, opponent for a vulnerable champion.
Such machinations led to the largest payoffs described during the trial, involving heavyweight champion George Foreman and German champion Axel Schulz.
Foreman promoter Bob Arum, of Top Rank Inc. in Las Vegas, testified that he used a middleman to get $100,000 to the IBF to sanction the Foreman-Schulz title fight in 1995. An exception was needed because Schulz was unranked, and Foreman was avoiding highly regarded boxers, testimony showed.
When Foreman prevailed in a disputed split decision, Schulz promoter Kushner sought a rematch, an available remedy under IBF rules.
Kushner testified he was surprised when Beavers told him it would cost $100,000, especially since he had been making regular payoffs to the IBF for years to keep in their good graces.
The heavyset promoter, who was called “Fat Man” by Lee and Beavers in conversations covertly taped by the FBI with help from Beavers, said he got the money from Schulz’s German-born co-promoter, Wilfrid Sauerland, who confirmed his account.
Even so, the rematch never happened. Foreman relinquished the IBF belt, with witnesses saying he did not want to risk defeat.
Trinidad Denied Payoffs
Of the 38 witnesses, the only marquee fighter to appear was longtime IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad, who testified for the defense that he never made payoffs, or had anyone make payoffs, to ensure good treatment by the IBF.
Trinidad, now the WBA super welterweight champ, did not figure in payoffs described in court.
Greg Fritz, a spokesman for Don King Productions in Deerfield Beach, Fla., has maintained that King’s payments to sanctioning groups are all legitimate.
Lee, 66, of Fanwood, N.J., and his son, Robert Jr., 38, of Scotch Plains, N.J., were the only defendants on trial.
Former IBF championship committee chairman Bill Brennan, 86, of Warsaw, Va., past president of the U.S. Boxing Association, a group that became the IBF, was severed from the trial because of ill health.
The IBF’s South American representative, Francisco “Pacho” Fernandez of Colombia, remains at large.