SBJ/20090727/This Week's News

Buying into Boots

The words still perplex Craig Leipold. “I lied to you.” A simple phrase that is as confusing to Leipold today as it was more than a year ago when William “Boots” Del Biaggio uttered it to him moments before Leipold boarded a plane to France for a family vacation.

“I’ve got to tell you,” said Del Biaggio, who’d bought the Nashville Predators from Leipold in late 2007, “I lied to you.”

“What are you talking about?” Leipold asked.

Weeks later, after he returned from France, Leipold learned exactly what Del Biaggio meant, and just how far those four words had taken him.

The young, relatively unknown venture capitalist from San Jose had made one of his first confessions of guilt in what would be one of the most embarrassing recent chapters in NHL history. Those four words defined Del Biaggio’s bizarre rise from virtual obscurity into hockey’s upper echelons and explained a stunning fall from grace that culminated with him pleading guilty to securities fraud in February.

Ultimately, the rise and fall of Boots Del Biaggio was built on nothing more than the flimsy foundation of deceit — and that call to Leipold was one of a series of confessions revealing one of the most brazen frauds in the last decade of sports ownership.

     

In May of last year, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman arrived at the league offices on New York’s Avenue of the Americas optimistic about the state, and future, of his league. The playoffs were in full swing, the league was on track to generate a record $2.56 billion in revenue that year, and the NHL was basking in the afterglow of one of its best regular seasons to date.

Seated at the desk in the corner of his expansive office, Bettman set out taking care of the day’s business, but his daily routine was interrupted, as it often is, by a call from an owner. Boots Del Biaggio was on the line calling to tell Bettman he was in trouble. He needed to sell his share of the Predators, and he needed to sell it fast.

“If you don’t get me out quickly, it’s going to be embarrassing for the league,” Del Biaggio said.

“Does David [Freeman, Del Biaggio’s co-owner in the Predators] know what’s going on?” Bettman asked.

About this story:
This story is based on extensive research conducted over the last six months. SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle reviewed more than half a dozen court cases, researched newspaper articles dating to 1994 and spoke with more than 50 people familiar with William J. “Boots” Del Biaggio III, most of whom did not want to be identified on the record. Del Biaggio  declined to be interviewed for the story on two occasions, and his attorney, Elliot Peters of Keker & Van Nest, did not return multiple calls for comment.

“No,” Del Biaggio said.

“I would suggest you call him immediately,” Bettman said.

Freeman’s sense of civic responsibility a year earlier had inspired him to invest in the Predators in order to keep the team in Nashville, and Del Biaggio had contributed critical capital to the deal. The two were less than six months into this partnership of convenience when Del Biaggio reached Freeman in Nashville. Del Biaggio sounded awkward, guarded and secretive as he spoke on the phone. He said he had problems that were going to be embarrassing. Mostly, he just wanted to apologize in advance for any trouble those problems might create.

Freeman didn’t ask what the problems were, but he could tell by the tone of Del Biaggio’s voice that he should prepare for the worst.

“How long before the problem becomes public?” Freeman asked.

“You probably have a few weeks,” Del Biaggio said.

After he hung up, Freeman wondered what Del Biaggio might have done. All of his guesses turned out wrong. It would be less than a week before Freeman knew why and began to piece together how his partner had led him and so many others astray.

     

William J. “Boots” Del Biaggio III, 42, was born in San Jose to a family that had settled in the area when it was little more than farmland. He took his nickname from his grandfather, William Del Biaggio, who grew up milking cows on a dairy farm in Patterson, Calif. Classmates called him “Boots” because he wore his farm boots to school. The name stuck and was passed on to his grandson.

After attending Santa Clara University, Boots’ grandfather took a job selling beer in Merced, Calif., for the John Wieland Brewery and eventually founded his own beer distributorship in San Jose. Boots started working at the distributorship at a young age, sweeping floors, washing trucks and helping drivers with deliveries

Boots’ first foray into hockey came with a small
stake in his hometown San Jose Sharks.

“Boots picked up a lot from [his grandfather],” said Jim Del Biaggio, Boots’ uncle. “[His grandfather] was very friendly, very hardworking, had no airs about him and took care of a lot of people. He wasn’t always the smartest guy in the room, but he had a lot of common sense and worked hard. Boots was hardworking, friendly and always outgoing.”

As the distributorship grew, Boots’ grandfather and father earned reputations as established local businessmen who gave generously to everything from the Boy Scouts to the local Jesuit school, Bellarmine College Preparatory, which Boots attended. A private, all-boys school, Bellarmine is known for producing tight bonds and accomplished alumni like San Jose Mayor and partial NHL Sharks owner Tom McEnery and former Oakland A’s owner Steve Schott.

When Boots attended in the 1980s, the parking lot outside the school was emblematic of the students who came from both moneyed and blue-collar families — new BMWs sat alongside beat-up Chevy station wagons. Boots was considered an average student by his peers and a mere role player on the football team, but what he did in school mattered less than simply graduating from Bellarmine. And when he returned to the area after college, he leveraged his Bellarmine ties to launch his first business.

In 1992, Boots and his father, Bill Del Biaggio, assembled a group of 15 to 20 local businesspeople in a conference room at San Jose’s elegant Hotel De Anza for a presentation on a new business opportunity. After everyone settled into their seats, Boots, in his mid-20s at the time, strode before the group and began to talk about his experience as a local Xerox salesman. Time and time again, he said, businessmen he called on complained about banking troubles. Comerica Bank had recently acquired one of the area’s last local lenders, Plaza Bank, and business executives no longer received the same personal service. Boots proposed starting a new bank, indicating that a successful one might deliver as much as 23 times return on investment.

It was a high-risk investment made riskier by the inexperience of its pitchman. After all, could a 20-something Xerox salesman with absolutely no banking experience really know how to launch a bank? But Boots, who was polished and aggressive, won the businessmen over with his vision, his originality and the credibility of his family’s name.

Boots’ Rise and Fall
1994 — Launches Heritage Bank of Commerce in San Jose
1996 — Leaves Heritage Bank and launches a venture capital career with Sand Hill Capital
2002 — Becomes a minor investor in the San Jose Sharks
2004 — Buys the River City Lancers (now called the Omaha Lancers), a U.S. Hockey League team, along with Mario Lemieux, Luc Robitaille, Mike Eruzione, Ben Robert and John Donovan
2005 — Fails to close on a $120 million offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins
2007 — Becomes a minority investor in the Nashville Predators through Forecheck Holdings
2008 — Charged with securities fraud by the U.S. Department of Justice and accused of defrauding investors out of millions by the Securities and Exchange Commission
2009 — Pleads guilty to securities fraud in conjunction with a series of loans he received to buy the Predators; faces a prison term of up to 25 years when he is expected to be sentenced on Sept. 8

“All of us, at the time, were more interested in the opportunity than his age,” said Kirk Rossman, who invested six figures into the bank. “We felt there was a need.”

The group, more than half of whom were Bellarmine alumni, collectively contributed $4 million to the new bank. With that, Heritage Bank of Commerce opened in June 1994 at a fortuitous time. It was the back end of a real estate recession and the front end of Silicon Valley’s tech explosion. Just two years after opening, the bank’s assets soared to more than $132 million, and Boots was named to The Business Journal of San Jose’s “30 Under 30” list in 1995.

It was around that time that he began applying his experience that he gained raising money for Heritage to branch out on his own and raise money for area startup companies. Venture capitalism suited him. “He could talk money out of anybody, and he had no hesitation about going to anyone and talking to them about money,” said an executive who was at Heritage at the time.

When soliciting money for startups, Boots handed potential investors his bank business card and met with several in the bank’s conference room. His personal bank account swelled as he deposited the money he raised directly into it. The Glass-Steagall Act (which was repealed in 1999) at the time required that money for investment banking be completely separated from money deposited in a commercial bank. When bank officials became aware of his fundraising and the way he was handling his accounts, they brought the conflict before a bank audit committee and Boots quietly resigned from Heritage in 1996.

Few on the outside knew why he left. Most assumed it was to do exactly what he did next, which was launch a new venture capital company called Sand Hill Capital. Boots, not yet 30, once again showed impeccable timing by opening the firm just after Yahoo! was founded in 1994 and before the dot-com boom of the late ’90s.

Essentially, Sand Hill Capital was a cross between a bank and a venture capital firm. Boots raised $8 million and leveraged it to $16 million with bank credit, according to The Business Journal of San Jose. He then loaned money to startups in $1 million to $3 million increments and charged the companies 10 to 18 percent interest on the loans. Sand Hill also received 1 to 3 percent equity in the startup companies. That equity paid off big time when companies like LookSmart went public in the late 1990s. A successful initial public offering helped Boots claim to deliver investors a ninefold return on their initial investment.

Once again, Boots had crushed it, and investors were ecstatic. “It was a high-risk opportunity,” Rossman said, “but he made money for all of us.”

Much of Silicon Valley buzzed about Sand Hill’s success, and new investors clamored to get into the firm’s second fund in 1999. It was the height of the dot-com boom, and everyone wanted a piece of the next big IPO. Interest was so high that, instead of raising $20 million to $25 million as planned for the second fund, Boots raised $60 million.

The firm’s size mushroomed from four employees to 26 and from one office in Silicon Valley to offices in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle. But when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and the Nasdaq shed 45 percent of its value, Sand Hill investors grew nervous. Boots had stopped meeting regularly with the firm’s board of directors and didn’t provide quarterly reports. Both of those issues were questioned in 2001 during an investor meeting at a Los Gatos, Calif., restaurant when two investors confronted Boots about the lack of transparency. Boots told them they could get their money out.

Between 2003 and 2008, Del Biaggio defrauded various investors and lenders out of approximately $65 million, using the proceeds to purchase an interest in a professional hockey team and to finance a luxurious lifestyle.
— the SEC v. “Boots” Del Biaggio

“If you want your money, you can have it,” Boots said, “but I’m not going to change my ways.”

Other investors pointed to the exchange as an example of Boots’ honesty, saying they’d never witnessed a manager of a high-risk investment opportunity offer investors their money back. But another investor said that while Boots was never a crook, the whole episode underscored how “he was always a step or two removed from dishonesty.”

The second fund eventually fell flat. Instead of pulling back during the dot-com meltdown, Boots increased the size of the loans that Sand Hill made, from between $1 million and $3 million to between $5 million and $20 million. Boots later conceded to The Business Journal of San Jose that it was a mistake to increase the amount the firm loaned to companies. He added, “I started a bank at a very young age and was very successful … and the first Sand Hill Capital people made nine times their money. OK, then I’m the first to admit, I got over my skis. From 24 to 33 years old, I had an unbelievable run and this is the first downturn I’ve been in — and you know, I have learned a lot. This has been very hard on me, but I have done the right thing.”

     

Despite the failure of Sand Hill’s second fund, Boots’ reputation remained intact. He was still a dealmaker from a well-known and highly regarded family, and when San Jose Sharks CEO and President Greg Jamison learned in 2001 that team owner George Gund wanted to sell the Sharks, Boots was one of the first people he approached about investing. Jamison, who joined the club in 1993 after stints with the Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, was committed to keeping the team in San Jose despite the fact that it was losing millions. He knew about Boots’ business success with Heritage Bank and Sand Hill Capital and also about his passion for hockey. Most importantly, though, Jamison knew his father and his family’s reputation. “His family was very well-established,” Jamison says.

Boots eventually came on board as a minority investor with a 1 to 2 percent stake in the franchise. His percentage was so small that he would never be tapped for capital calls and wouldn’t be part of the franchise’s board of directors. Despite that, he was the only owner to speak to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002 about the investor group, saying, “The goal [of the investors] was to make sure [the Sharks] stayed here in the community, with local venture capitalists and technology CEOs. … This is a great group. It represents the fan base that we have.”

Boots was part of an ownership group that
bought the minor league River City Lancers
in 2004, and included hockey legends Mario
Lemieux, Luc Robitaille and Mike Eruzione.

The Sharks ownership added another veneer of achievement to Boots’ résumé. Around the same time he invested in the team, he traveled to South Lake Tahoe to attend the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament featuring some of the biggest names in sports. An avid golfer, Boots enjoyed being in South Lake Tahoe that week when stars like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Elway and others were in town. While attending the event in the early 2000s, Ben Robert, a business acquaintance, introduced him to hockey great Mario Lemieux. Lemieux, who owned the Pittsburgh Penguins, was on the lookout for potential investors in his team. Boots seemed like a possibility and the two became fast friends.

During a round of golf in Lake Tahoe in 2004 with Lemieux and 1980 “Miracle on Ice” star Mike Eruzione, Boots raised the idea of investing in a minor league hockey team in Omaha, Neb. The River City Lancers were in receivership after their previous owner, Pat Forciea, committed bank and wire fraud to obtain $2.56 million to buy the franchise. Lemieux and Boots were working with their friend Robert to put together an investment group to buy the team. Eruzione thought it sounded fun and asked to join the group.

A month later, they bought the Lancers. Robert’s boss and inCode Telecom CEO John Donovan became the majority owner in a star-studded group that included Lemieux, Eruzione and Luc Robitaille. (Both Robert and Robitaille declined to comment for this story.) Boots rounded out the group by buying an 18.5 percent share of the team for $35,000 and paying to outfit the team’s locker room with maple-colored wood lockers, new carpet and an area for players to play video games.

The investment in the team and locker room cemented Boots’ membership in an elite crew of hockey figures. To the former players like Eruzione and Robitaille, Boots seemed like any other businessman they’d come across. He was bright, articulate, well-mannered and successful. He occasionally picked up tabs at dinner, but never so often that he seemed like he was buying their friendship. He was nice to everyone and would be as respectful of the valet at a restaurant as he was of other pro hockey players. He was also generous. He donated $1,000 to Eruzione’s charity annually, contributed $36,000 to Lemieux’s foundation and gave $5,000 to Robitaille’s charity Echoes of Hope. As Eruzione said, “That’s how he lived. He wasn’t flashy. He was very generous.”

     

But as Boots got deeper and deeper into the world of hockey, he seemed to want more and more. And what he wanted most of all was to be majority owner of an NHL team. He always said he wasn’t rich enough to own one by himself, but he believed he could pull together an investor group like the one for the Sharks.

With the NHL buried in contentious labor negotiations and the 2004-05 season suspended, Boots approached executives and asked them to introduce him to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The league was in the middle of its lockout, but Bettman was on the lookout for potential owners when a sports finance executive called and asked the commissioner if he would be willing to meet Boots. The two met in Bettman’s corner office and discussed the future of the NHL. It wasn’t an extensive conversation, but it put Boots into a special group of potential owners whom Bettman kept in mind when teams came up for sale. It was a tough list to join, and the access it provided was invaluable. As one person familiar with NHL business said, “There’s this little club — the overall potential ownership club — and once your name’s known in the circle, you get to know all 30 owners.” Boots was officially part of that club, and he made his first run at an NHL team soon after meeting Bettman.

In 2005, Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle were looking to sell the Penguins and Boots emerged as a logical buyer — not only was he a friend, business partner and golf partner of Lemieux’s, but he was already on Bettman’s short list. He signed a letter-of-intent to buy the team for $120 million in June and immediately set out to find investors. One of the potential investors he approached was Bill Dallas, who had invested in Heritage Bank in the 1990s. He told Dallas that the Penguins were a cheap, undervalued asset that could be sold for a profit with the right management team. Dallas remembers, “He was dropping [the name] Lemieux like it was his job. He liked running with the big dogs.” But Dallas passed because he saw the investment as more of a long-term play than he was looking for at the time.

Boots (second from left) and his wife were
guests of AEG at the 2007 MLS All-Star Game.

Because of the pending Penguins deal, Boots received an invitation to be a guest at the annual Bad Boys Invitational hockey tournament in Las Vegas. Started by Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the multiday hockey tournament was held every summer for as many as 200 celebrities and former NHL players. It was a highly organized and very exclusive event. The invitation lifted Boots into yet another echelon of the hockey world.

After the event, Boots continued to pitch potential investors on the Penguins opportunity, but Dallas wasn’t the only one to pass. He ultimately failed to raise the capital to buy the team, and the deal fell apart. (The Penguins and Lemieux declined to comment for this story.) Boots and Lemieux remained close, but the failed deal damaged Boots’ credibility. He was never invited to the Bad Boys Invitational again. As one person familiar with the event explained, if a deal goes wrong in the entertainment business, they look at the person’s track record to see if they are a “BS guy or not,” and after the Penguins deal failed, Boots appeared to be more talk than follow-through.

After that year, Boots still went out to Las Vegas the week of the Bad Boys Invitational, but he spent most of his time gambling. From 2004 to 2008, he spent more than $4.6 million gambling at everywhere from the Venetian to MGM. But being on the outside of the Bad Boys event looking in was not where Boots wanted to be and his desire to buy an NHL team only deepened.

“When the Pittsburgh deal went south, he had it in his head at that point that he had to get a team,” said a person familiar with Boots at the time. “He threw everything out the window to get a team and save face.”

     

As he pursued his first sports franchise and weaved his way deeper inside the world of hockey, Boots’ tastes had evolved, as well. He favored private jets and custom-tailored suits, and amassed four properties — one each in Santa Monica and Squaw Valley, and two in San Jose. He had all the accessories of a millionaire, and he continued to present himself as an accomplished venture capitalist. He raised millions for a series of funds between 2003 and 2008.

In April 2006, he opened a fund called BDB II and raised $11.4 million to invest in Onco Petroleum, an Ontario-based company that claimed to be sitting on a natural gas reserve. Robitaille also invested in Onco Petroleum, and both joined the company’s board. Around the same time, the friends took out a $2 million loan and planned to buy property together. The business partnerships were a natural extension of their friendship.

“He could talk money out of anybody, and he had no hesitation about going to anyone and talking to them about money.”
— An executive who was at Heritage Bank in the 1990s

Robitaille was named an executive at AEG, the global sports and entertainment giant, in November 2006 and charged with finding a tenant for the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Boots, who was still interested in buying an NHL team, once again seemed like a good partner, so Robitaille made sure Boots knew his boss, AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke. Boots signed a contract that fall with AEG to own and operate an NHL team based in Kansas City, and his quest for a franchise continued.

In 2007, he learned that Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold was looking for someone to buy the franchise. Leipold had owned the team since 1997 and had tired of losing more than $20 million a year. Boots, who was one of the first potential buyers to take a look, struck Leipold as an ideal buyer. He was a current NHL owner who loved hockey, appeared to have significant net worth and was charismatic. Leipold met with Boots and his fellow investor, Warren Woo, at a friend’s office in Chicago before a Predators-Blackhawks game. He had sent Boots some financial information on the team and expected Boots to ask questions about the team’s business. Instead, Boots asked about players, draft picks and hockey operations, while Woo — an investment banker who once headed UBS’s leveraged finance and private equity group — asked the business questions. Leipold left the two-hour meeting concerned that a sale might not work because Woo was too focused on the team’s financials, and he signed a $220 million deal with Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie instead of Boots.

David Freeman partnered
with Boots in late 2007 to
buy the Predators and keep
the team in Nashville.

But Boots and Leipold reconnected when Balsillie’s bid fell apart. A group of local Nashville business leaders had approached Leipold to buy the team but didn’t have enough cash to buy it outright. The group, led by David Freeman, was about $30 million short. Leipold turned to Boots to fill the gap. He arranged an introductory dinner for Freeman and Boots at the Palm in Nashville. The two connected immediately: Freeman appreciated Boots’ willingness to invest and take a quiet, minority position in the franchise, and Boots didn’t mind if Freeman controlled the team, so long as he could be an NHL governor.

The negotiations catapulted Boots back into the sports industry’s upper echelon. In July 2007, Boots and his wife joined Leiweke, Alexi Lalas and others on billionaire Phil Anschutz’s private jet for a trip to the MLS All-Star Game — the event that was David Beckham’s coming-out party in the U.S. It was the peak of Beckham mania in the U.S., and Boots and his wife had a front-row seat on Anschutz’s private jet alongside the soccer star.

But in August, Boots and Freeman failed to close their $193 million purchase of the Predators. Leipold was optimistic that the deal would close by October but got a call that fall from Boots that put the closing in jeopardy. Boots said he had cash-flow and personal issues he was dealing with that might prevent him from closing the deal. He added, according to Leipold, “That’s unless you can loan me some money until January or February. I can just pay you back in February.”

“I think that could work,” Leipold said.

Boots got in touch with Leipold’s attorney and had his brokerage firm provide the attorney with financial statements detailing his assets. The attorney reviewed them and determined that Boots held three times collateral for the loan in stock. On Oct. 23, 2007, Leipold signed the paperwork and extended Boots a $10 million loan. It was only one in a series of loans Boots collected that fall. A few days later, AEG agreed to loan Boots an additional $7 million. The company was also furnished with documents from Boots’ brokerage company showing that he had collateral for the loans. Modern Bank, a private bank in New York founded by Bippy Siegel, agreed to a third loan of $10 million on Nov. 16, and DGB Investments, VeriFone CEO Doug Bergeron’s company, agreed to a fourth loan of $3 million on Nov. 28. In total, Boots collected $30 million to cover an estimated $25 million in equity that he needed to buy a minority stake in the Predators.

“He was dropping [the name] Lemieux like it was his job. He liked running with the big dogs.”
— Bill Dallas,
whom Boots pitched as an investor when he tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005

The deal for the team closed on Dec. 7, 2007. Although he wouldn’t be the majority owner, Boots got everything he wanted. In exchange for $30 million in equity and a guarantee against $40 million of the team’s $70 million loan from CIT Group, his company, Forecheck Holdings, became the preferred shareholder in the team and didn’t have to cover any capital call. But most importantly, he would be an alternate governor for the NHL.

In January 2008, against his business partners’ knowledge, Boots began trying to find investors to help pay back the loans he’d taken out to buy the Predators. He distributed discussion materials to “a limited number of sophisticated prospective investors” who might consider investing in the Predators. The discussion materials, first obtained by The Tennessean, highlighted the strength of his preferred share of the Predators, which allowed him to move the team to another city if the team lost $20 million during the 2009-10 season.

Boots attended the NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta later that month. Walking through the lobby of Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton with partner David Freeman, he beamed a wide smile when asked about his first board of governors meeting. He’d been on the outside of the NHL looking in for a long time, and clearly he felt like he had arrived. He attended monthly board meetings in Nashville in February, March and April. And he took out $11 million in additional loans from three different banks.

     

That spring, only weeks after that first governors meeting, an SEC examiner visited Boots’ brokerage company, Merriman Curhan Ford & Co., for an examination. The visit wasn’t related to Boots, but the examiner came across something that didn’t seem right and began digging further.

When he was done, the examiner would discover that the brokerage statements Boots was using as collateral for many of his loans weren’t his brokerage statements at all. Since that fall, Boots appeared to be receiving e-mails from a broker at Merriman with other customers’ statements. He then falsified those statements by placing his name and address on them and sent them to Leipold’s attorney, AEG and others.

Former Predators owner
Leipold gave Boots a $10
million loan to help him
buy the team.

Boots eventually learned he was under investigation, which is when he placed that series of calls to Bettman, Leipold, Freeman and others in May of 2008. His message was simple: He was in trouble and the news was going to break soon.

Or as he conceded to Leipold, “I lied to you.”

On May 29, 2008, the San Jose Mercury News broke the story that federal authorities were investigating Boots. A day later, Bergeron’s DGB Investments filed a lawsuit alleging Boots committed “complete fraud.” Others followed. Security Pacific Bank, the Private Bank of the Peninsula, Modern Bank, Heritage Bank and AEG Facilities all filed lawsuits. In October, Robitaille filed a complaint that Boots exercised the $2 million loan they took out together without his knowledge and provided the bank with an e-mail address that Robitaille no longer used. The value of their shares of Onco Petroleum had dropped from $5 a share to 15 cents a share.

In December, the SEC filed a civil lawsuit against Boots, and the U.S. Department of Justice charged him with using false brokerage account statements to obtain loans. He settled the case with the SEC and pleaded guilty in February to charges brought by the Department of Justice. He is out on bail and awaiting sentencing Sept. 8, when he faces up to 25 years in prison.

At a meeting with a friend this summer, Boots still seemed to be in denial about his actions. He told the friend that he had simply overleveraged himself. But it was a bit more complicated than that.

“When the Pittsburgh deal went south, he had it in his head at that point that he had to get a team. He threw everything out the window to get a team and save face.”
— According to a person familiar with Boots at the time

While Boots hasn’t been charged with running a Ponzi scheme, the SEC has alleged that he used the four funds he launched between 2003 and 2008 as his own personal checkbook to cover gambling debts, pay home mortgages and cover credit card bills. The most striking example of what he did emerged in bankruptcy court filings, after Boots declared bankruptcy in June 2008, and involved an investor named Robert Peters.

After Boots set up a fund called BDB III in January 2007 to invest in Pacific Premier Bancorp, Peters transferred $1 million to Boots’ personal bank account for the fund. At the time, the account was negative $434,000 because of overdrafts for two checks Boots had cut to Peters totaling $450,000 to repay an existing loan from Peters. In other words, Peters was paying himself $450,000 and Boots $550,000.

Looking back, a lot of his peers in the San Jose community who knew Del Biaggio growing up said the wealth he showed — the private jet service for which he paid $68,000, the custom-made clothing from San Francisco’s stylish Zuckerman & Associates, the Mercedes-Benz CL500 — never added up. This, after all, was not the smartest guy at Bellarmine, just a charismatic guy from a good family.

From September 2007 through April 2008, Del Biaggio falsified the account statements and provided them by email and the U.S. mail to at least seven banks and private lenders located throughout the United States. Del Biaggio obtained roughly $45 million in loans based upon his oral and written representations that the accounts belonged to him.
— the SEC v. “Boots” Del Biaggio

To them, the shame is not what he did to himself but what he did to his family. The Del Biaggios were pillars of the San Jose community. Now, their name carries an asterisk. When 500 people turned out for a History San Jose fundraiser honoring the family, the first line about the event in the San Jose Mercury News read, “The Del Biaggio name still means something good in Silicon Valley.”

Boots’ share of the Predators remains tied up in bankruptcy proceedings, and the trustee says he doesn’t expect it to be sold any time soon. After the scandal broke, the NHL adopted a new policy that requires owners to disclose any and all business and financial relationships between one another, such as the loans Boots received from Leipold and AEG. While the policy was designed to eliminate conflicts of interest among owners, many say if it had been in place before Boots bought the team, he would have been ruled out as a buyer long before he dragged Leipold, AEG and the NHL down with him.

For the NHL, Boots joins a string of team owners who have found themselves serving time, dating to Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall in the mid-1990s and New York Islanders owner John Spano in 1997. But it’s not just Boots’ crimes that stand out, it’s the timing of them.

His rise and fall parallels the boom and bust of the recent financial meltdown. He opened talks to buy the Predators around the market’s peak in 2007 and was convinced he could flip his shares in the team. But the tidal wave of the economic meltdown swept him away before he had a chance, making him nothing more than another victim in the sea of his own deceit.

From his point of view, Leipold, who now owns the Minnesota Wild, remains perplexed by the entire ordeal.

“He knew in two months he would owe people a lot of money, and I guess what he expected to do was to borrow more money to pay us off,” Leipold said recently. “That’s a Ponzi scheme.

“There’s a little of this era of greed. … It’s hard to understand that kind of mind-set.”

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