Bullpen & More, by Kevin Nelson

Archive for the ‘Operation Bullpen’ Category

“Masterminds” Episode on Operation Bullpen Now on Youtube

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BY KEVIN NELSON In 2006 the “Masterminds” TV series produced an episode on the Operation Bullpen case that you can now watch on Youtube. Well, excerpts from it anyhow. The excerpts were posted by a guy named “JoeMLM,” whose purpose is to call attention to the ongoing problem of forgeries in the memorabilia trade.

Some of you may have seen the original program, but if you haven’t, this might be worth a look. The “Masterminds” docu-drama is entitled “Foul Ball”—the FBI’s code name for its investigation into Michael Jordan forgeries in Chicago, which was then followed by the Operation Bullpen investigation. It aired for the first time in December five years ago, right after my book on Bullpen came out.

There’s a homemade quality to the posting on Youtube. It’s been trimmed and it’s choppy, and the actual “Masterminds” program that was broadcast around the country is far superior to what you will see here. On Youtube it begins with JoeMLM talking off-camera—apparently he wishes to keep his identity secret, thus he does not show his face—and he makes comments here and there, so be patient. The episode gets going after about a minute or so.

It includes an on-camera interview with Wayne Bray, the “mastermind” of the $100 million Operation Bullpen rip-off, and recreates some of the things he did by using an actor who plays him. An actor also plays Greg Marino, the chief forger. Appearing as themselves in the program are FBI agents Tim Fitzsimmons and John Ferreira, and Justice Department attorney Phil Halprin, all of whom played key roles in bringing down the ring in the celebrated 1999 nationwide bust.

Since I interviewed all these men, including Bray (and Marino and others involved in the conspiracy), “Masterminds” wanted me to talk about the case, which I did. They shot the interview in a hotel room in San Diego. I flew down from my home in the Bay Area, talked to them for about an hour, and flew back the next day.

The show first aired on Court TV, which has since become TruTV. The production company, Red Apple Entertainment of Toronto, may no longer exist. The program was repeated on TruTV, then syndicated on other networks and channels across North America. I suppose it was inevitable that sort of a bootleg version of it would pop up on Youtube.

One quibble: Both “Masterminds” and JoeMLM say that Jim DiMaggio—the man who “authenticated” the hundreds of thousands of forgeries produced by Bray and Marino—was a relative of Joe DiMaggio, the late Yankee great. Not true. Like so many other things having to do with the Bullpen conspiracy, that story was made up, a fraud to deceive the public. Jim DiMaggio has as much to do with Joe DiMaggio as I do with Admiral Horatio Hornblower Nelson.

Interview on Card Corner Club Radio

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While the rest of you were taking Thanksgiving weekend off, I was doing an interview on Friday night with the guys at Card Corner Club Radio, Rob Bertrand and Doug Cataldo. We chatted about the growth of fake game-used memorabilia, why bogus authenticators never get busted, why forgery rings keep proliferating in the sports and celebrity memorabilia industry, and lots more. It’s about a 20-minute interview that begins about 15 minutes into the program. Check out the podcast right here.

Written by Kevin Nelson

November 29, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Q&A on Forgeries, Frauds and Corruption v. Love

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Recently I received an email from Stephen Andon, a PhD candidate in Communication at Florida State University, who is writing a dissertation on sports memorabilia. After having read Operation Bullpen and the blogging I’m doing here and for Autograph Magazine, he wanted to ask me a few questions about forgeries (such as this Babe Ruth fake, penned by Greg Marino) and corruption in the sports memorabilia industry. Here are excerpts from our discussion:

Is it interesting to you that we keep finding forgeries today — even important pieces – such as pieces in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Can we simply attribute that to how widespread the forgery problem was up until Operation Bullpen?

Kevin Nelson: I do find it interesting that forgery is just as prevalent now as it was in the late nineties when the FBI busted the original Bullpen gang. At the time federal officials estimated that 90 percent of all signed pieces sold on the Internet were fake. After a ton of criticism the feds changed their tune to say only 50 percent of autographs were fake. The truth is, nobody knows. But the number is, without doubt, substantial. Forgery remains a big problem.

Now, I’m using the “forgery problem” in the past tense, but is it accurate to use the past tense? In other words, has the memorabilia industry changed enough that forgeries are no longer as prevalent?

Kevin Nelson: Nope. I receive emails all the time from people who see fakes being sold on eBay and elsewhere. John Olson was one of the greatest Ali forgers, who worked with Chuck Wepner in defrauding people and who was busted in the second phase of the Operation Bullpen investigation. He called me the other day just to check in and said that he still sees his stuff being sold online.

One of the consequences of Operation Bullpen is that leagues, teams, and memorabilia companies have partnered together to create a new era of authenticity, with professional authenticators, holograms, Internet-tracking, and the like. Were these procedures necessary to re-establish the credibility in the memorabilia industry? Or, again, is that claim overly simplistic?

Kevin Nelson: The latter. The efforts to combat fraud have had a real but limited impact in part – in large part, one might say – because of the consumer. People think they’re getting a bargain online when they see a signed Mickey Mantle photo being sold for 75 bucks, and they scoop it up. It is, of course, almost certainly a fake. But either these people don’t know what they’re buying, or they don’t care. In either case, they are buying fakes and often feeling good about it because they’ve gotten it for such a good price. Forgeries usually sell for less, and often considerably less, than the real thing.

Furthermore, through Steiner (and other companies, of course), I believe you can pre-order game-used baseballs or bases or jerseys, etc. Does that ruin any of the spontaneity of sport, a la a Mean Joe Greene’s Pepsi moment, or am I drunk on nostalgia?

Kevin Nelson: No, you’re not nostalgic at all. Sports fans love this stuff. That’s why there is such a huge and growing market for game-used material and continuing strong demand for autographed material, despite a bad economy. I live near San Francisco, and people out here went nuts for the Giants this year. They had to have something associated with the team. That’s why forgers and fraud artists have such a thriving business. They are exploiting something that is real: people’s love for sports. People feel passionate about these athletes and they want to connect with them, somehow. Collecting is one way they can do that.

All that being said, are fans more savvy to the perils of Internet or E-bay shopping than they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s?

Kevin Nelson: Collectors are definitely more sophisticated than they were in the nineties. Although they were aware back then of the potential for fraud, most people did not understand how widespread it was until the Operation Bullpen busts. First there were the FBI busts in Chicago mainly of Michael Jordan fake merchandise. But those were local stings. Then came the much larger busts of the Bullpen ring, which exposed a national operation doing tens of millions of dollars of business as part of a very clever and formidable criminal conspiracy. Most serious collectors are aware that a good deal of the supposedly legitimate stuff that is sold on eBay is actually garbage.

As a follow-up, when stadium dirt or player jerseys or some other kind of game-used memorabilia is broken up into hundreds of pieces and sold off in pieces assembled in frames and such – to the point where it seems they are not so different from mass produced items – does that water down what’s special about the item when it’s whole?

Kevin Nelson: Well, it depends. If people are aware of what they’re buying, and it’s legitimate, I don’t think it’s a rip-off to sell them a piece of turf from old Yankee Stadium if that’s what they’re interested in buying. They have a lot of great memories of what happened on that turf and to have a piece of it in their house, well, that’s kinda cool. Derek Jeter and A-Rod walked on that piece of dirt there, that’s now in my living room. It’s a great conversation piece when you have the guys over to watch the game.

Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Fraud in American History. Contact him here.

You’re welcome!

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Dear Mr. Nelson:

I just wanted to send a quick email thanking you for the great book you wrote on Operation Bullpen. I am a keen autograph collector and bought the book as I did my university dissertation on counterfeit autographs and how widespread the problem is. Your book was invaluable to me and I thank you for your great work.

Alex Ford

Cardiff, Wales, UK.

Written by Kevin Nelson

November 17, 2010 at 6:24 pm

HBO Program on Forgeries on Youtube

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BY KEVIN NELSON Sept. 3, 2010 Anyone who is interested in forgeries and fake memorabilia—and that means virtually all collectors—needs to go right now to YouTube and watch the famous HBO “Real Sports” program on Operation Bullpen and the crooked authentication racket. I wrote a book on the case and I had never seen this program until today.

Apparently it was on Youtube for a while, and then it was taken down. My guess is that the reason for this was the $5 million 2008 Donald Frangipani lawsuit against HBO that claimed the cable network defamed him in its coverage. A judge dismissed the case in March, and now the video is back on.

Frangipani, one of the dubious “experts” who authenticated thousands of fake pieces in the $100 million Bullpen ring, makes an appearance in the program. In a sting set up by the journalists, he is shown giving his stamp of approval to several pieces of fake memorabilia. Other real-life characters in the Operation Bullpen saga also appear, notably the forger Greg Marino, who is shown in FBI undercover video, and FBI Special Agent Tim Fitzsimmons, who oversaw the three-year federal investigation that brought down the ring.

Even Dan Marino—one of the countless superstars forged by Greg Marino (no relation)—comes on camera to explain that yes, virtually all the signed Dan Marino items being sold on the Internet are bogus. The key player in the program is a man whose face is cloaked in shadow and is identified only as “Eddie,” in order to protect his identity. It’s no secret that Eddie is Shelly Jaffe, a counterfeit memorabilia distributor who sold mountains of fake stuff in the ring, was busted by the FBI, and went to prison for six months for his crimes.

Jaffe is interviewed in his upstairs study in his southern California home. I know this because I have sat in that study myself, interviewing Jaffe, although he spoke on the record with me. Always a quotable fellow, he gets off some good lines, including this one referring to the remarkable gifts of Greg Marino, “If God had a signature, he probably could’ve done that too.”

“Forger’s Paradise,” produced by Joe Perskie and Andrew Bennett and edited by Tres Driscoll, with reporting by Armen Keteyian, is an extraordinary piece of television journalism. Must-see for every collector and everyone in the collecting industry.

Operation Bullpen Keeps Making News

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BY KEVIN NELSON I continue to be amazed—and flattered—by the attention that my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, continues to receive nearly four years after publication. In an interview this month in Collectors Weekly, Sotheby’s consultant and Antiques Roadshow appraiser Leila Dunbar says:

There’s a book about the FBI’s Operation Bullpen, which, in 1999-2000, broke up a ring of forgers across the United States. They estimate that $100 million worth of fake autographs got into the market, and were distributed by all the big sellers. Forged signatures included Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, DiMaggio, and Mantle.

That book was Operation Bullpen, and as I keep writing articles and blogs about forgery for Autograph and other sites and publications—in fact I’ve got a long piece coming out soon about literary forger Forest R. Smith, III—some in the collecting business have come to associate me with the FBI. Why, I’m not entirely sure. I got firsthand accounts and interviews from both the crooks and the FBI in Operation Bullpen; that’s what makes the book so unusual—the story is told from both sides (and fairly too. Both the forgers and law enforcement have praised it as a balanced, accurate account of the crimes.)

Nevertheless, the other day I was doing a story about a collector and I wanted to talk to the dealer who was planning to represent him when he put his collectibles up for auction. The dealer, at first, was a little wary about talking to me because he wondered, mistakenly, if I was involved with the FBI.

Believe me, folks, I’m a writer. And a journalist. If I were in the FBI I’d be getting paid a lot more. And I’d have to wear a suit and tie every day to go to work. But I’m not. I’m just a guy who wrote a book about forgery—here, check out my author’s website if you want to learn more.

Honestly, I figured I’d write Operation Bullpen and then move onto other books and topics, which I have. But I keep writing about forgery and other types of collector crime because it remains an endlessly fascinating subject, with breaking new developments all the time. The dealer eventually relaxed, we had our interview, and I filed the article with the magazine that assigned me to do it.

That’s the way it works in the writing biz—nothing more to it than that. But a writer lives and dies by his sources, and if you’ve got a question or tip about forgery or collecting crimes, drop me a line. I’m interested.

Written by Kevin Nelson

August 23, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Jim Bellino: Reality TV Star and Counterfeit Authenticator

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BY KEVIN NELSON. March 19, 2010. Of all the crooks in the crooked memorabilia racket, the hardest ones to catch are authenticators of dubious repute. If you doubt this, consider the case of Jim Bellino, a former authenticator who was the target of an FBI investigation during Operation Bullpen and who is now appearing on a reality television series, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”

Described by Bravo TV as “a self-made entrepreneur and businessman,” Bellino is certainly all that and more. He is married to Alexis, one of the Orange County housewives, both pictured here. Since his appearance on the show, he has become the focus of Internet gossip for his past activities in the memorabilia business. I wrote about Bellino in my book, Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History, and I have spoken many times with the FBI agents who investigated him.

“He was close mouthed, a tough cookie to crack,” said John Ferreira, the FBI undercover agent who posed as a memorabilia dealer and bought thousands of dollars of fake Babe Ruth-signed baseballs and other forged material from Bellino.

Based in the city of Orange in Orange County, Bellino ran a company called Forensic Document Services, which authenticated-that is, certified as legitimate-fake autographs produced by Greg Marino and other forgers who were part of the national ring that ripped off American consumers for $100 million before the FBI brought their fun to an end in 1999.

The Chicago FBI first identified Bellino as a subject of interest, and later the San Diego FBI probed his activities in Operation Bullpen. According to Tim Fitzsimmons, the FBI case agent who oversaw Bullpen and Ferreira’s undercover investigation, Forensic Document Services was certifying “ungodly” amounts of forgeries and then selling them.

The FBI, in fact, combined with slugger Mark McGwire, then playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, to concoct an elaborate scheme to see if they could get Bellino to admit, on tape, that he was selling forgeries. “The scheme,” as I write in my book, “had a few steps to it.”

First Ferreira wrote and signed a $20,000 check made out to McGwire’s charitable foundation for children. He never made this contribution; it was a sham. On the memo line of the check, it read, “Charity.” The FBI made a poster-sized copy of the check so it was big enough for two people to hold and the names and the amount could be seen clearly. Ferreira and Fitzsimmons then drove up to the Long Beach office of Jim Milner, McGwire’s business agent who managed the foundation and was also in on the scheme. Milner and Ferreira held the check between them and smiled as Fitzsimmons took a picture of them. Additionally, Milner composed a letter on foundation stationery, later signed by McGwire, thanking Ferreira for his generous gift.

The FBI then arranged for Ferreira and McGwire to pose for a picture together, which further bolstered Ferreira’s cover and lent him legitimacy (it was hoped) in Bellino’s eyes. With all this material in hand, Ferreira, secretly wired with recording equipment, paid a visit to Bellino at his office in Orange:

The feds next moved to their target. Since Ferreira’s usual demeanor had been a bust with Bellino, his colleagues argued for a change in approach-harder, tougher, more like a criminal. The ever-agreeable UCA said he’d give it a whirl, and on his next visit to Forensic Document Services he came on like a major asshole. Swearing and bragging and dropping the f-word all over the place and parading around with the two signed McGwire balls and the pictures of him and McGwire and him and Milner with the $20,000 check, Ferreira said he knew that all the garbage he was buying was bad and that all his customers knew it too. So to cover his ass he had dumped a load of money into Big Mac’s foundation. You know, to help the kids. All that crap.

Trying to close the deal, Ferreira told Bellino he should do the same-make a donation-because he was dealing lots of forgeries too, right?

If he was, he wouldn’t say. The cookie still would not crumble. All this tough talk made Bellino nervous or, as the agent put it, “hinked up.” Failing once more to crack his subject, Ferreira took his balls and photos and left, and the hinked-up owner of Forensic Document Services was undoubtedly happy to see him go.

Despite all the effort the FBI put into investigating Bellino, the cookie never did crumble. He never admitted anything on tape because, he said, he was innocent. He was not selling forgeries. One last excerpt from my book:

Though his authentication firm, Forensic Document Services, closed its doors after the bust, Bellino told a reporter that he was “neither tried nor convicted of any crime because I never would knowingly buy or sell an illegitimate or forged autograph.” Feeling sure he would be vindicated if his case went to trial, he declined to take the matter to court, citing the high cost of litigation and the length of time involved. Instead he accepted a deal with the government that gave him probation and expunged his record. He cannot, however, return to the memorabilia business without obtaining an order from the court.

In the FBI’s informal list of Bullpen subjects and the sentences they received, this is what it said about Bellino: “charged/probation/expunge/ban.” In other words, the feds barely laid a glove on him.

Autograph authentication remains an imprecise science and a rather dodgy one at that. For an authenticator only gives his opinion on whether a signature is legitimate or not, and as the FBI concedes-and the certificate itself states-his opinion may be wrong. So since it’s only his opinion, an authenticator can certify “ungodly” amounts of fraudulent material and it’s still very, very tough for investigators to prove in court that he is breaking the law.

Pretty nifty little racket, no? Sounds like it might make a good reality TV series.

Kevin Nelson is the author of Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story of the Biggest Forgery Scam in American History. Contact him here.