How the McMahons’ WWE Beat the Rap in the 1990s (Part 2, the Steroid Charges)

(YESTERDAY: Part 1, the Sex Charges, https://wrestlingbabylon.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/how-the-mcmahons%E2%80%99-wwe-beat-the-rap-in-the-1990s-part-1-the-sex-charges/)

Before circling back to the conclusion of yesterday’s post, we should reemphasize the single biggest factor in the 1994 acquittal of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute steroids. That was the 1989 tip to Vince and Linda McMahon of the investigation of their Pennsylvania ring doctor, George Zahorian, who would be convicted and go to federal prison in 1991.

Even without the later machinations of defense counsel Laura Brevetti’s “fixer” husband, Martin Bergman – which started with planted smears of prosecutors in the New York media and continued all the way through to witness-tampering – the McMahons would have been nailed if not for the early warning to them that Dr. Zahorian was “hot” and needed to be removed as a WWF-appointed attending physician under Pennsylvania’s newly deregulated state athletic commission procedures.

Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, who has covered the industry and the trials longer and harder than anyone, says, “The key to the acquittal is Linda being tipped off and Zahorian never being hired. Zahorian actually hired and working for the company, and they’d have lost the case.”

Linda McMahon’s December 1989 memo instructing executive Pat Patterson to fire Zahorian surfaced during the recent Senate campaign through the reporting of Ted Mann of the New London Day. But with investigations of what is now World Wrestling Entertainment reviving at both the state and federal levels, more needs to be known about how the government sabotaged the 1990s case. Linda has said that James West, then the U.S. Attorney in central Pennsylvania who was coordinating the Zahorian prosecution, told one of the McMahons’ lawyers, Jack Krill, at “a fundraising event.” West vaguely denied that to Mann and then told me that he didn’t want to talk about the past. Sorry, Mr. West; the past has become prologue.

Incoming senator Richard Blumenthal, coming from the state attorney general’s office, should understand as well as anyone that the integrity of new attempts to reform pro wrestling requires setting the record straight on past efforts. The McMahons habitually and erroneously cite their acquittal as vindication, and one of the things allowing them to continue to run an entertainment death mill is the public absence of an institutional memory. The historical questions “how?” and “why?” still matter.

*****

To resume the narrative started here yesterday, WWF lawyer Jerry McDevitt and his team scored an important victory in their fight for survival when the government decided to abandon the allegations of sexual abuse inside the company and to focus on the steroid charges. But, of course, the McMahons still wanted acquittal at trial and they couldn’t rest on the assurance that their better-late-than-never separation from Zahorian would be enough for a not-guilty verdict.

Fixer deluxe Bergman went so far as to meet with star prosecution witness Emily Feinberg, Vince’s ex-secretary, and bait her with suggestions of six-figure payments for tabloid TV interviews. Incredibly, this story, which was exhaustively documented in 1995 by both the New York Post and the Village Voice, got censored in the 2010 Senate campaign coverage everywhere except on this blog.

A final and decisive factor in the 1994 acquittal was simply the bungling of the prosecutors: on at least one of the counts, they hadn’t even established proper jurisdiction for the trial in the Eastern District of New York. You have to wonder if Bergman’s smears in The New York Observer of Sean O’Shea, chief of the Business/Securities Fraud Unit for the U.S. attorney there, had rattled him. Another possibility: The Justice Department bureaucracy as a whole was conflicted or half-hearted about the McMahon prosecution once the decision was made to confine it to steroid charges, and the result was the undermining of its own case, consciously or otherwise.

Marty Bergman was investigated for witness tampering in the Emily Feinberg matter, but he was never charged. By leaking the story to the Post and the Voice, prosecutors may have been taking their payback against him and the McMahons as far as they wanted it to go: exposing these out-of-bounds defense tactics without further exposing the humiliation of their failed prosecution.

Irv Muchnick

NEXT: Additional related reading from this blog’s archive.

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