by Irvin Muchnick
A little-noticed aspect of retrospectives on the legendary sportswriter Frank Deford is the full background of the early 1990s federal investigation — culminating in the 1994 acquittal at trial — of WWE musclehead-in-chief Vince McMahon. Of course, Linda McMahon, Vince’s wife, now runs the Small Business Administration under our staggering, and staggeringly embarrassing, President Donald Trump.
Buckle up your seat belts, folks, for yet another lesson in how life imitates pro wrestling. That wrestling animates our civic conversation has become a cliched talking point of the chattering class. One guy even wrote a whole thumb-sucking, culture-mongering book about it. But trust me, the chattering class doesn’t know the half of it.
The real point of this maxim is not just that reality-TV-clown-turned-leader-of-the-free-world Trump has appropriated the gestures and insults and crudeness of wrestling. It is that the content and structure and rhythm of governmental affairs themselves mirror wrestling. The best way to think about all this is the scene in The Godfather in which the Diane Keaton character, Kay, fiancee of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, scoffs at the idea that politicians conduct themselves the same as the Mafia. Michael says back to her, “Now who’s being naive?”
My reexamination of this subject is occasioned by anticipation of the Senate Intelligence Committee testimony on Thursday by James Comey, whom Trump recently fired as FBI director. The second paragraph of Trump’s May 10 dismissal letter famously began, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation …”
In order to understand how this relates to Vince McMahon, eminence grease of junk culture, you should begin by reading David Bixenspan’s excellent piece earlier this week at Deadspin: “How Frank Deford Helped Pro Wrestling Journalism Become Very Real,” http://deadspin.com/how-frank-deford-helped-pro-wrestling-journalism-become-1795783697.
For a companion piece, check out my own memories and appreciation of Deford last week, shortly after he died: “Frank Deford, Mozart of Sportswriters,” https://concussioninc.net/?p=12043.
Now for “the rest of the story.”
The constellation of scandals that almost brought down McMahon’s then-World Wrestling Federation is remembered as “Titangate,” after WWE’s non-publicly-traded predecessor entity, Titan Sports, which was wholly owned by Vince and Linda. These scandals had two components — drugs and sex.
The sex scandal was by far the more serious: allegations that Titan employees Terry Garvin and Mel Phillips — with executives at the top winking at best, openly laughing about it at worst — systematically molested underage members of the crew hired on tour to set up and tear down the rings for the appearances of this traveling circus.
In addition, Vince McMahon’s right-hand man, former star wrestler Pat Patterson, was implicated, with somewhat less coherent evidence, in the casting-couch-style sexual harassment of male wrestlers and one male announcer. (In an inside joke on WWF TV interviews during this period, one wrestler spoke of mastering the move called “the Pat Patterson go-behind,”)
The federal investigation of the WWF began as a sex investigation. It was driven by the reporting of Phil Mushnick, sports columnist for the New York Post. (Mushnick, who is not related to me, would write the foreword for my 2009 book Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.) This prong of the investigation withered after a key witness, ring boy Tom Cole, settled a civil lawsuit against Titan Sports on the eve of an explosive episode of The Phil Donahue Show (an early, and in retrospect rather tame, entry of the TV talk-shout genre).
Under the watchful maternal eye of Linda McMahon, Cole even returned to work for the company for a while, before flipping again (and still later in full adulthood, when journalists revisited the story during the first of Linda’s two unsuccessful U.S. Senate races in Connecticut, flipping yet again, coming down in support of the McMahons and clamming up for good).
Stymied on the sex, the feds focused on the much weaker drug allegations. In 1991 Dr. George Zahorian, an attending physician at many WWF shows in Pennsylvania, became the first person convicted under a federal law criminalizing the prescription of anabolic steroids for non-therapeutic purposes. That Zahorian was the connection for WWF talent, from Hulk Hogan on down, as well as for Vince McMahon himself, was an open secret. Evidence at Zahorian’s trial included a database of his FedEx shipments to Hogan and others. Several prominent wrestlers testified, but Hogan got his subpoena quashed through the first important intervention of Pittsburgh lawyer Jerry McDevitt, who would go on to become the McMahons’ go-to public legal point man.
When, on a separate track, WWF lobbyists (led by future senator and presidential candidate RIck Santorum) engineered deregulation that put the attending physician at wrestling shows in Pennsylvania under the control of the promoter rather than the state athletic commission, WWF had nearly got itself in a pickle by retaining Zahorian. But word leaked out to them that their favorite doc — the one Pat Patterson argued should be kept at all costs because he handed out “candy” to the boys while he was taking their blood pressure before shows — was “hot,” and they told Dr. Z to go away.
Again, retracing and documenting the steps around the almost-continuation of Zahorian, during the 2010 campaign of would-be senator Linda McMahon, would bring her to the knife edge of a charge of obstructing justice. But this was never established with utter clarity, and the voters of Connecticut had other concerns anyway — such as whether Linda even knew what the minimum wage was..
Returning to the original thread of the nineties, the criminal counts against Vince McMahon for “conspiracy to distribute steroids” were shaky, and I believe he properly beat the rap at his 1994 trial. The reality that wrestlers, like Hollywood stars, get ahead in large part based on cosmetics, and might be encouraged, by implicit commercial pressure or otherwise, to use artificial enhancements, did not here rise to a federal case.
However, it is noteworthy that McMahon’s lead counsel, Laura Brevetti, who managed his defense along with McDevitt, might have been involved in hanky-panky with government witness Emily Feinberg, a former Playboy model who had been Vince’s secretary and mistress. Brevetti’s husband Marty Bergman, an ostensible TV tabloid show producer, induced Feinberg with offers of riches for telling her story — thereby, arguably, suborning her testimony.
(Brevetti and Bergman, by the way, had been married in a ceremony at City Hall officiated by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. You see, the highest levels of modern-day Republican politics consist of Trump and Santorum and Giuliani and a wrestling cast of thousands.)
I’ve reported on all this over the years. In the next few days I’ll repost some of the links; those of you who can’t wait are invited to plug keywords into the search engine at ConcussionInc.net. But for now, let’s get back to how Donald Trump and Vince McMahon’s shared distinctions include hairsplitting claims of not being under federal investigation.
In the Deadspin piece on Deford, writer Bixenspan, using both his own enterprise and citations of my work, tells the anecdote of Vince McMahon screaming at Deford “I have proof I’m not a mobster!” As I contemporaneously reported the incident for the Village Voice in 1992, the outburst seemed simply amusing and perplexing: Deford, on National Public Radio, had commented on Hulk Hogan’s lies about steroid use, but Deford had made no reference to McMahon’s alleged mob connections. But thanks to Bixenspan and another wrestling-watching friend of mine in Scotland, Keith Harris, I now better understand that mob innuendo was in the air, from disgruntled ex-WWFer Superstar Billy Graham, and that must have been what was on McMahon’s mind.
And here is where the rubber hits the road for the headline over this article.
Bixenspan has published a January 17, 1992, letter WWF lawyer McDevitt received from James J. West, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. West mentioned a radio interview in which Graham claimed one of West’s assistants asked Graham to wear a wire in conversations with McMahon so as to capture evidence of the promoter’s mob associations. West shot down Graham’s account, stating that the U.S. attorney’s office was “unaware of any suspected connection between McMahon and the Mafia.”
Six months later, McDevitt called me on a Saturday afternoon in July and spent the better part of an hour talking down an item the Village Voice and I were considering about allegations of ring-boy sexual molestation from a witness other than Tom Cole. (As it happened, we wound up agreeing with McDevitt that this story lacked sufficient corroboration for publication.)
Two days later, on July 13, McDevitt sent me a letter memorializing our conversation. I recently uncovered the letter among a box of old documents in my garage. What is most interesting about the letter was the final paragraph, which was unrelated to the conversation about the Voice “Jockbeat” column item that would be killed:
“[W]e have been specifically told by the appropriate representatives of the Justice Department that Titan Sports, the WWF, and its principals are not the target or subject of any investigation. You should also know that the Department of Justice regulations specify that a person or entity which is a target is to be so notified by the Department and is also to be told the general subject matter of the inquiry. Neither Titan, the WWF, nor any of its principals have received any such letter.”
We don’t know if the letter to which McDevitt was referring was the January letter from U.S. attorney West, but it seems likely that was the case.
I recall that after getting the letter, I called Mary Jo White, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and told her what McMahon was saying through his lawyer. (White would become chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission for four years; she recently left that post.)
In response, White didn’t comment on whether McMahon was under investigation. But she said, basically, “not exactly,” to the contention that he necessarily would have to have been informed if he were a target. The prosecutorial rules are a bit more complex than McDevitt suggested.
So, what we had was a categorical denial of a party who obviously either indeed was or soon would be “under investigation” — McMahon would get indicted, after all. The denial was based on a letter generated by a friendly U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania. But McMahon was being investigated by the U.S. attorney in New York.
Wrestling promoters didn’t invent evasive language, or spin, or lawyers. Neither did Donald Trump. I suspect the rub in James Comey’s testimony tomorrow will be that, if Trump did in fact ask him directly whether the president was a target of the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the election, the director was in no mood to answer him directly. Of course Trump was, is, and will be under investigation — for something in some form.
I didn’t say Trump was under investigation for collusion with the Russians.
I didn’t say Trump was under investigation for corrupt business dealings with the Russians and others.
I didn’t say Trump was under investigation for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, or any of a number of other statutory or constitutional violations of the criminal code; or for — ahem — “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Nor do I have to say any of those things. Comey’s testimony is only the SummerSlam of the impeachment saga. WrestleMania is still to come.