When he conceived the idea of a course called Stadium Naples in 1996, ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen envisioned a 12,000-seat grandstand wrapped around the 18th green of a tournament track built to host the IntelliNet Challenge, the Senior tour event he controlled. However, Stadium Naples and its companion residential and commercial developments were never constructed. Last Thursday, Rasmussen had to settle for an 80-seat courtroom in Collier County, Fla., where he pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise, a felony carrying a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
Rasmussen, 69, was one of 10 Collier County officials, real estate developers and a lawyer charged in state circuit court after a four-year investigation by Florida prosecutors. Four of the defendants—two former county commissioners, a former county manager and a developer—have already pleaded guilty or no contest to various charges and face sentences ranging from probation to 15 years. A third former commissioner, John Norris, who pleaded not guilty, allegedly received $30,667 as he was casting votes that funneled $1 million in county grants to Rasmussen's tournament. "Corruption had become institutionalized in Collier County," Florida special prosecutor Michael Von Zamft told SI last Saturday. "The people involved thought everything they were doing was O.K."
The alleged offenses make up a litany of white-collar crimes. According to the charges brought by Von Zamft, one commissioner played golf for free more than 40 times. Another commissioner had his wedding reception paid for by a developer. Other conspirators settled for cash.
The defendants in the case are politically and socially prominent on Florida's southwest coast. One of them, David Mobley, a partner in Stadium Naples, made local headlines in July when he pleaded guilty to federal charges that included four counts of fraud for bilking $120 million from investors in his Maricopa Investments firm. Thursday's pleadings got as much attention from the Naples media as anthrax scares and geopolitics. ("You'd have thought they caught Bin Laden here," said Dave Kempton, an area businessman.) Across the state, in Ponte Vedra Beach, PGA Tour officials tried to distance themselves from the scandal, pointing out that Rasmussen ran the Naples tournament for only two years and lost his Tour contract after his foundering company, IntelliNet, defaulted on sponsorship fees for 1994, '95 and '96, and his Challenge Foundation failed to pay bills for the '98 tournament. "This was a very isolated case," said Ed Moorhouse, the Tour's chief legal counsel.
In making his case, Von Zamft will argue that Rasmussen used his reputation as the founder of ESPN to attract investors and put off his creditors. Rasmussen came up with the idea of a 24-hour national sports cable network in 1978 but was squeezed out of ESPN a year later, shortly after the Getty Oil Company purchased an 85% stake in the company. When ESPN was sold to ABC in 1984, Rasmussen says he collected $30 million, but SI estimates his personal take was only $700,140. His subsequent business ventures include a national sports radio network that went broke in nine months, a television sports production company that cost the Big Ten Conference a bundle and IntelliNet, a home-systems automation company that lost $12 million in three years. To act as investment banker for the stadium-golf project, Rasmussen in the summer of '97 briefly brought in the brokerage firm A.S. Goldmen, which closed in 1999 when 31 of its employees either entered guilty pleas or were convicted in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan on securities fraud charges, including some involving their firm's handling of investments in the Stadium Naples project.
In January 2000, Rasmussen lent his name to Sports At Home, a now moribund dotcom that had planned to stage $1 million online sports competitions. As a result of the charges filed against him, Rasmussen resigned on Monday as the firm's nominal chairman at the request of Sports At Home CEO Wes Monty. As for Rasmussen's connection to ESPN, a spokesman for that network, Dan Quinn, told the Naples Daily News, "He's a distant part of our history."
The memories of Rasmussen are a little fresher in Naples and Ponte Vedra Beach. As head of the Challenge Foundation, the nonprofit corporation set up to run the Naples tournament, Rasmussen paid himself a six-figure salary and, in the view of John Counsell, a Naples businessman who worked as sales manager for the foundation from June 1996 to April '98, generally spent its money too freely. Rasmussen ended up in several tournament-related financial disputes. He admits that he never gave local Rotarians $40,000 he owed them for parking cars for six days at the '98 tournament to raise money for charity. At the end of that event, won by Gil Morgan, Rasmussen went out on the 18th green and presented a large nonnegotiable cardboard check for $770,550 to the chairperson of Quest for Kids, a nonprofit agency that provides educational help to disadvantaged students. However, the charity actually received only a small fraction of that amount.
To protect its good reputation, the Tour has tried to mollify tournament vendors who have complained that Rasmussen's foundation never paid bills, some running into six figures, for food and services for the '98 tournament. "The Tour wanted us to keep quiet about it, not make any waves," says Prom Catering co-owner Bill Given, who figures his company is owed $97,000.
"Rasmussen still owes us $106,000," says Smitty Smith of Kirby Rentals, which provided tables, tents and other items for the tournament. "The Tour people told us that they would clean it up. We waited and waited, but nothing happened." (Says Rasmussen, "What gets overlooked here is that the vast majority of vendors were paid.")
Naples-area taxpayers got some relief in February 1999, when the Tour paid Collier County $196,000 in restitution for the portion of the $1 million in grants that the county claimed Rasmussen's foundation had spent on tournament-related expenses not permitted under terms of the grants. The Tour wrote Rasmussen demanding the $869,500 that the Tour had spent to cover the tournament purse. Rasmussen ignored the letter and claimed that the Tour's subsequent silence proved he'd done nothing wrong. To date, neither the Tour nor other creditors have sued the foundation or Rasmussen, who lives with his wife, Lois, in Hilton Head, S.C. Says a Tour official who did not wish to be identified, "One thing we considered is the difficulty of collecting anything from Rasmussen."