Man who scammed NHL in 1990s faces another Ohio fraud case

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The man who once tried buy an NHL franchise with loads of chutzpah and not much else could face a return to the judicial penalty box if convicted of what authorities say is yet another scam.

John Spano Jr., whose audacious effort to buy the New York Islanders in 1996 landed him in federal prison, is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday for an alleged scheme to defraud a company that provides laundry services to health care facilities.

But the allegations that Spano, 50, collected nearly $70,000 in sales commissions on fake contracts can't compare to the millions of dollars involved in his Islanders bid or a later scam totaling nearly $300,000 that earned him a second trip to federal prison.

Spano faces one count of theft and 44 counts of forgery in his latest case. Neither he nor his attorney returned telephone messages about charges in Lake County, east of Cleveland.

The new trial comes nearly two decades after Spano appeared seemingly out of nowhere, posing as a wealthy Texan with his eyes on the Isles.

With documents showing his worth at hundreds of millions of dollars and knowledge of his previous negotiations to buy two other franchises, the NHL wasted little time in approving Spano's purchase of the Islanders for $165 million.

It all looked legitimate. Banks agreed to loan $80 million with the supposedly wealthy Spano paying the balance. By October 1996, he'd taken Long Island by storm, ensconcing himself as owner before the deal was closed while enjoying rock star treatment from loyal fans that saw him as the struggling team's savior.

It took a few months, but Spano's trust-fund facade began to crumble, revealing a 30-something con man with outsized ambitions. He kept the charade going as long as he could with increasingly desperate and laughable excuses and delays for why he could not provide the $5 million down payment that would lead to the formal transfer of ownership.

The FBI got involved as more facts became known and Spano eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to theft and forgery charges. A judge sentenced him in January 2000 to nearly six years in prison and ordered him to pay a total of $11.9 million in restitution to the Islanders, banks and victims of his other schemes, including hockey legend Mario Lemieux.

A documentary released in 2013 titled "Big Shot" about the aborted purchase has been aired on the ESPN series "30 for 30" and has helped refresh his notoriety. Spano says in the documentary that buying the team became "a game with myself."

"You ride in the right circles and people just stop asking questions," Spano said.

After his first stint in prison, Spano returned to northeast Ohio, where his family moved from New York City when he was a teenager. It would not take long before he found new victims to scam.

Spano formed a finance business he used to charge companies thousands of dollars for services he never delivered. An investigation led to him pleading guilty to mail fraud charges that sent him back to prison for just over four years.

He once again returned to Ohio after prison. In 2011, a company called Image First Healthcare Laundry Specialists in suburban Cleveland hired him as a driver. Impressed with his work ethic, the owners, a father and son, promoted him to sales.

But in 2013, the owners approached police because they believed Spano had stolen a large amount of money from the company. An investigation found that Spano had created dozens of fake accounts for which the company had paid him $67,000 in commissions on nonexistent sales, Willoughby police Lt. Jim Schultz said. Spano was running the operation from an office he'd fashioned in a self-storage unit, authorities said.

Calls to the company for comment were not returned and prosecutors did not respond to interview requests.

"They put a certain amount of trust and faith in him," Schultz said of the owners. "I don't think they were aware of his past."

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