While a much more important story plays out behind the scenes, the Connecticut media remain mesmerized by the nonexistent political future of Linda McMahon, who just blew through $50 million of her World Wrestling Entertainment-generated wealth to lose the U.S. Senate race there by double digits and help drag the state Republican Party down to a shutout defeat in every Congressional and statewide election race.
Commentators with way too much time on their hands are wasting the time of the rest of us speculating about a new run by McMahon in 2012 for Connecticut’s other Senate seat. One variation inexplicably floats her name for state party chair. I haven’t yet seen anyone nominate Linda for secretary-general of the United Nations, based on her sterling Senate campaign, but that’s probably coming.
The much more important story, playing out right under the noses of Nutmeg State journalists, is ongoing investigations of WWE’s business practices. The state of Connecticut is in the midst of auditing what many believe to be the clear misclassification of wrestlers as independent contractors. And when new Senator Richard Blumenthal, who defeated McMahon, takes office in January, he is expected to do something about reenergizing other probes of pro wrestling out of Washington.
As readers of this blog know, there is a long history of government investigations of Vince and Linda McMahon’s company. With the goal of improving general understanding of the challenge of bringing the publicly traded WWE to account for the last generation’s pandemic of industrial deaths, let’s review how its privately owned predecessor, TitanSports/World Wrestling Federation, wriggled off the hook of a two-pronged federal investigation in the 1990s. Back then a grand jury investigated the company both on allegations that it harbored a circle of employees and executives who abused underage boys, and on charges that it brokered illegal steroid transactions between its wrestlers and its already convicted Pennsylvania ringside physician, Dr. George Zahorian.
The WWE legal team was and still is headed by partner Jerry McDevitt of the Pittsburgh law firm now named K&L Gates. McDevitt got a major assist from another current partner at the firm, Laura Brevetti, who defended Vince McMahon at the 1994 federal trial – along with undercover support from Brevetti’s “fixer” husband Martin Bergman, a crony of then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Team McMahon’s basic approach was that the best defense was a good offense. The year 1993 was one of carefully coordinated PR whose purpose was less to tell WWF’s side of the story than to chill the very telling of that story by others.
Tom Cole, the main pedophile accuser, got fired by the company for the second time early that year, perhaps because he refused to coordinate and share his grand jury testimony. (In May, Cole sued the McMahons a second time.)
In March, WWF sued Geraldo Rivera for libel for reporting the claim of ex-referee Rita Chatterton that Vince had raped her.
In September, I was subpoenaed for testimony in another WWF libel suit, against the New York Post and sports columnist Phil Mushnick. I decided to fight the subpoena with California’s journalist shield law, and the McDevittites dropped it. In due course they dropped both the Rivera and Mushnick lawsuits themselves.
Also in 1993, and continuing to the eve of the steroid trial the next year, the company filed spurious claims with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility against Anthony Valenti, chief investigator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, and prosecutor Sean O’Shea. Marty Bergman – posing as an independent freelance writer and not disclosing his relationship with Brevetti – co-authored articles in The New York Observer about these self-generated “investigations” of Valenti and O’Shea. Joe Conason, the executive editor of the Observer, later admitted he had been duped. Bergman’s co-author agreed that he and Conason had been taken for a ride, one designed to throw prosecutor O’Shea off his game.
I’ll get to that last point, among other things, in the second part of this series. For now, it’s important to reflect on how the WWF allegation against Valenti (along with the chilling, if baseless, libel suits against journalists) eliminated the sex charges from both the public conversation and the prosecutorial bill. Valenti was accused of colluding with an NBC investigative producer in leaking secret grand jury information. Ultimately, NBC did not air the story on which it had been working.
The dropping of sex charges was a significant victory for McDevitt and his operatives. The reality is that indictment on those allegations (whether or not they were fair) might well have sunk WWF even if Vince and company were later found not guilty at trial. The steroid charges, by contrast, were far more survivable, even in the unhappy event that they would be a conviction at trial.
NEXT: Additional related reading from this blog’s archive.
TOMORROW: Part 2, How the McMahons beat the steroid charges.