|Friday, March 9
Mauer stood tall -- and pays the price
By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com
When do you abandon your principles?
When do you compromise what you know is right, forsake what you have been taught your entire life, cede who and what you are, the foundation upon which you live from day to day?
When it's convenient? In the name of your family? Your livelihood? Whenever you feel like it? If so, are they really principles, or are they simply guidelines?
Or, are your principles of such value that you never relinquish them?
That's what Ken Mauer believes.
And he is paying for it.
Mauer is one of the 45 NBA officials who have been lynched -- fairly or unfairly is up for debate -- by the Internal Revenue Service for an airline ticket scam that netted them additional income.
Mauer, however, is one of only two men -- the other was Steve Javie -- who chose not to plea bargain his case, who chose to fight for what he believed to be an injustice against him, against his good name.
"I'm not saying a mistake wasn't made," Mauer said. "I'm not saying I've never made a mistake. But I never intended to commit a criminal act. I stood up for what I believe in. That is the only way I know how to live my life."
And in what could only be considered an unfair fight, Mauer lost.
While Javie was found not guilty, Mauer was convicted of a felony, three counts of tax evasion and one count of obstruction of justice, and unless an appeal reverses the decision, he will forever be considered a felon.
He can never vote again. Cannot hold a government job. His freedom to travel is restricted.
Worse, while the other 43 referees who chose to plea bargain and wanted their jobs back got them back, Mauer possibly may not be reinstated by the NBA, depending on what the outcome of his sentencing hearing -- yet to be scheduled -- is.
And that is the true irony of this story.
Mauer is a man of his principles who stood by his beliefs, who chose to fight the system that was, he felt, unfairly persecuting him.
You would think, from the NBA's point of view, that is exactly the type of man they would want to represent them as a referee, a position that is supposed to be the standardbearer of integrity and honor.
At a time when the league is taking a public relations hit for wife-beating and drunk driving and drug use, the league needs more Ken Mauers, not less.
"I'm from a referee family," Mauer said. "My father reffed 35 years. All four of my brothers ref. My priorities are in line, there are more important things my life, but I want to get back to what I love. I want my job back."
But he is a convicted felon, the league would argue.
But honestly, Mauer has not done anything more than Jess Kersey or Mike Mathis or Joey Crawford, all men who plea bargained and are back on the court presiding over basketball games.
The only difference is, Mauer stood up for himself, while those other men caved to the pressures being placed upon them.
"When he decided to do this," Joey Crawford said, "I said, 'Kenny, are you sure this is what you want to do?' I tried to talk him out of it. He said, 'Joe, I can't do it. I didn't do anything wrong.' I said, 'I didn't either. But the system is so corrupt and so screwed up, just get it over with.' And he said, 'Nope. I can't do it.
"All the refs didn't want him to do what he did. But he didn't want to be labeled a felon or a criminal, like the rest of us are. I admire him for what he did. He stood up."
Hey, I'm not blaming Crawford, or any of the other officials who chose to plea bargain. I probably would have done the exact same thing, given their circumstances.
But Mauer should not be punished by the league when those men who failed to stand up for what they believe -- and believe me, they ALL think they are innocent -- are being rewarded by being permitted to resume their positions. Particularly when you look at the way in which Mauer was convicted.
He, like all the referees, would take their first class airline tickets, downgrade them to economy class, and take the difference as additional income. That they didn't claim the difference on their income tax was questionable, to be sure, but when the practice began decades ago, it was part of the referee's collective bargaining agreement between the officials and the NBA.
All the officials will admit their mistakes, but when you take into account the amount of money that was being made, it is negligible by most standards. Over a three-year period, Mauer was taxed $26,500 on the additional income he made, an average of $8,800 a year.
I'll say it again: $8,800 a year.
Perhaps the real story here is why is the IRS spending so much money to prosecute a guy who did not pay them $8,800 a year?
According to a source with the IRS, "Generally speaking, I would say that prosecuting him was a bit excessive. Normally, he would have gotten a penalty for a late payment, a fine, he would have to pay his back taxes with interest. It would be a pretty substantial amount."
When you take into account their investigation, their prosecution, the fact they had to fly their lawyers from Washington D.C. to Minneapolis to conduct a trial, you can bet it cost the taxpayers well over $8,800 to nail Mauer.
This time of year, there are all sorts of articles about how understaffed the IRS is, what the odds of getting audited are, how to cheat on your taxes because the IRS does not have nearly the manpower to keep up with all the returns.
And yet, it spent who knows how many hours of manpower and financial backing to go after a guy who did not pay $26,500 over three years.
When his accountants told him it was OK.
That's right, Mauer's own accountants, who signed his tax returns, told him that his income from his downgrades was not taxable, that he was OK. Go ahead and file the way he had.
Didn't matter. Not to the IRS. Not to the jury who was given only half truths. For instance, Mauer bought his dream tract of land overlooking a river outside St. Paul, Minn., then with the help of his family built his own house after getting a loan from the bank as the general contractor.
During his trial, the prosecutors went through his bank accounts and showed large deposits of cash -- which were construction loans for his house -- then showed pictures of his finished house, and insinuated to the jury that he was a drug dealer and a money launderer.
In essence, they smeared his name badly enough in the courtroom that a jury was distracted from the real issues at hand.
"The whole thing was a joke," said Crawford, who attended the trial. "You watch this stuff and it is like surreal. You can't believe your friend is going through this. You can't believe it, and you watch it, and how the government goes about it. They made this guy out to be a bad person, an ogre. And it fascinated me they could get away with this. And they did. You lose respect for the whole system."
When it came down to it, Mauer has spent in excess of $230,000 in attorneys fees defending his name.
And if that is not an indication of his feelings about right and wrong, nothing is. A man who could have gotten off had he simply agreed to say "I'm guilty" gave up his life savings, borrowed from friends and family, is on the verge of losing his house and, possibly, his job forever, has spent $230,000 to defend a $26,500 mistake. And that is before he even has to pay his civil penalty, which could total as much as $100,000.
Before all this happened, Mauer was rated as one of the NBA's top referees, among the top 25, despite being one of its youngest.
Part of the reason for that is because of the type of person he is, what he stands for.
The NBA should cherish its employees like Ken Mauer, welcome him back, celebrate his return.
Not kick him out to the curb.
"I'm just hoping that David Stern rights the wrong," Crawford said.
Frank Hughes covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune. He is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.