The admitted gambler behind George Steinbrenner's ouster from baseball was convicted Wednesday of trying to extort money from the banished New York Yankees owner.
The conviction by a federal court jury was a victory for Steinbrenner, as well as the prosecution, because the Yankee boss' credibility was a central issue during the month-long trial of defendant Howard Spira.Spira was convicted of five of six counts in connection with his dealings with Steinbrenner. He was found guilty of using the mail and the telephone to make extortion demands, but cleared of a charge that he taped a conversation, intending to use it against Steinbrenner.
"I have always believed in this nation and its processes. I have had complete faith in the judicial system of this country. . . . Naturally, I am pleased with the verdict and I thank all of those people who believed in me and my family," Steinbrenner said in a statement issued through his spokesman.
Asked whether the conviction would move Steinbrenner to challenge his ban from baseball, spokesman Steve Mangione said, "It would be inappropriate to discuss that at this time."
The office of commissioner Fay Vincent, whose investigation led to Steinbrenner's ouster, said the verdict would not affect Steinbrenner's position.
"The federal case against Mr. Spira, as the commissioner has said many times, has no relationship to any baseball matter including Mr. Steinbrenner's status as it pertains to his agreement with the commissioner," Vincent's spokesman, Rich Levin, said.
The jury of 10 men and two women also convicted Spira of three charges unrelated to Steinbrenner. They acquitted him of a fourth.
Spira's attorney said he would appeal the guilty verdicts. After the verdict, the government sought to have Spira jailed, claiming the conviction proved he was a danger to the community.
But Spira appealed directly to U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton to allow him to remain free on bond. "I have no intention of running away or nothing, but facing this like a man," Spira said.
Stanton agreed, but warned Spira to "stay away from everybody who testified in this case" until his sentencing on Sept. 19. Spira, 32, faces up to five years in prison on two of the charges and up to two years in prison on the other six counts.
Spira was convicted of one count of trying to extort money - the amount was not specified in the indictment - from Earle Lilly, a Houston attorney involved in a matrimonial lawsuit against ex-Yankee Dave Winfield, and acquitted of a second count involving the lawyer.
He was also convicted of threatening to harm a United Airlines employee who rejected a claim involving lost luggage.