Promoter says attractive property made him a target
December 6, 1998
When federal officials asked professional wrestler Vince McMahon five years ago if hed bought steroids from a Harrisburg doctor in 1989, he not only admitted it, he produced the canceled check for $530 to prove it.
McMahon knew that sales of the muscle-building steroids were banned by the government in 1991, though they were perfectly legal in 1989. But with just that small amount of evidence, federal prosecutors convinced a grand jury in 1993 to indict McMahon, who might be best known for inciting riotous behavior as ringleader and owner of the World Wrestling Federation.
The four-count indictment accused him of conspiring with Dr. George Zahorian of Harrisburg to dispense steroids to wrestlers between 1985 and 1991. The doctor had been convicted of illegally distributing steroids in June 1991 during a high-profile trial that identified numerous big-time wrestlers, like Hulk Hogan, as steroid purchasers.
McMahons attorney, Jerry S. McDevitt of the Pittsburgh firm Kirkpatrick and Lockhart, knew some legal problems might be afoot before that.
A few months before the indictment, McDevitt got a call from a federal investigator, who asked for a copy of the deed for the property of a company McMahon owned in Stamford, Conn., called Titan Sports Inc. It was worth more than $7 million.
McDevitt and McMahon figured, correctly, that the feds planned to pursue the steroid case in the hopes they could link it to the Connecticut property, and then grab it under federal laws that allow the forfeiture of property linked to illegal drugs.
What riled McDevitt was that the government had issued a news release after Zahorians conviction stating unequivocally that possession of steroids prior to 1991 was not illegal. McMahon had acknowledged his 1989 purchase at that time.
McDevitt also knew the Connecticut property had been purchased after McMahons steroid purchase in 1989, so connecting it to a drug transaction to attempt a forfeiture simply wasnt possible.
But federal prosecutors tried anyway. They even announced their intentions to the national media on the courthouse steps in Stamford.
That nearly ruined McMahon financially. Banks and creditors became anxious and considered pressing the wrestling magnate on money he owed.
"I had to go talk with them, to tell them these charges were nonsense," McDevitt said.
A few months later, without fanfare, the government dismissed all but one of the charges against McMahon stemming from the indictment. The forfeiture action was also quietly withdrawn.
The only count that went to trial accused McMahons company of a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, even though no one else was named in the "conspiracy" which, under federal law, must involve at least two other parties.
McDevitt tried to subpoena officials at the FDA, but the government successfully moved to quash the subpoenas by arguing they were not relevant, even though the agency was listed as the victim in the grand jury indictment.
The government presented its case. McDevitt didnt bother.
"It was such a weak bunch of garbage we did not even bother to put on a defense," McDevitt said.
In his closing arguments, McDevitt pointed out that the government failed to demonstrate how the FDA was victimized in this supposed fraudulent scheme.
Then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean OShea told the jury that if McMahon had wanted FDA officials to testify, he could have had them subpoenaed a surprising position given OSheas effort to quash the subpoenas. McDevitt called OSheas statement "grotesque prosecutorial misconduct."
McMahon and his company were acquitted. He went back to work orchestrating high drama in the WWF rings all over America.
"In the end," McDevitt said, "the government spent a couple of million bucks and two years of grand jury time on this witch hunt. Like all witch hunts, the scary thing was the witch hunter."