Michael Largue, a self-described investment banker from Uniondale, L.I., has been putting out word that he wants to buy a professional hockey team. That’s how this sort of thing gets done: You let people in the business know you’re interested.
What you shouldn’t do, though, is give an overenthusiastic account of your life and resources.
That may explain why Mr. Largue has yet to find a team to call his own, despite constant overtures to the National Hockey League. The league has had some bitter experience with would-be investors claiming to have great wads of cash on hand. Last year, a Dallas businessman named John Spano nearly bought the New York Islanders by lying to a bank to get an $80 million loan to finance the purchase. The deal fell apart at the last minute when Mr. Spano turned out to be something less than what he said he was, and he eventually pleaded guilty to fraud charges. The league, which had approved the deal, vowed never to get conned again.
And along came Mr. Largue, whose office happens to be in the Islanders’ hometown. Mr. Largue, a heavyset 36-year-old with thinning hair, met with the N.H.L.’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, last fall and told him he was looking to buy a team and that he was backed by a wealthy Swiss businessman named Lester Mittendorf. Mr. Bettman let Mr. Largue know that at some point he would have to produce Mr. Mittendorf in the flesh.
In February, Mr. Largue conferred with representatives of the city of Edmonton, Alberta, and of Edmonton’s professional hockey team, the Oilers-the team that launched the careers of Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. He expressed his interest not only in buying the Oilers, but in keeping the team in Edmonton. The hockey-mad locals live in fear that somebody will buy the team and move it somewhere else, like Texas. So Mr. Largue’s promise made him a hero in western Canada.
Mr. Largue arrived in Edmonton on March 2. He got a tour of the Oilers’ arena, collected a few autographed goalie sticks and had dinner with the mayor. He announced that a deal was imminent.
All anybody knew of Mr. Largue was what he’d told them: He claimed that he had played hockey for Northeastern University and the Bern Bears, a professional team in Switzerland; that he had an undergraduate degree from Northeastern and a master’s degree from St. John’s University in Queens; and that his Swiss backer, this Lester Mittendorf, had $100 million to spend on a North American team.
A Few Holes Develop
It all sounded fabulous. But by the time Mr. Largue was ready to leave Edmonton the following day, he had a public relations nightmare on his hands. A slew of reporters from The Edmonton Journal and The Edmonton Sun had discovered a few holes in his story. They learned that Mr. Largue had obtained degrees from neither university, though he had attended both for short periods. Furthermore, there was no record that he had played hockey either for Northeastern or for the Bern Bears. And, most disturbingly, it appeared that Mr. Mittendorf might not exist. Nobody in Switzerland-in either the hockey or business community-had heard of him, and none of Mr. Largue’s business acquaintances in the United States had met him. The only Lester Mittendorf the Edmonton reporters could find, here or abroad, was a retired banker living in Metropolis, Ill. (where the newspaper is called, of all things, The Planet ). And this particular Lester Mittendorf knew nothing of Michael Largue.
On March 3, the reporters confronted Mr. Largue at the Edmonton International Airport with some of their discoveries. “That’s interesting,” he said. “Well, I guess you did your homework.” But he reiterated his claims about his hockey background and Mr. Mittendorf. He claimed he had spoken to Mr. Mittendorf the previous day, but when asked for the Swiss investor’s number, he said he didn’t have it on him. One reporter asked Mr. Largue: “Can you give us a reason why we should believe anything you say?”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” Mr. Largue said.
The Edmonton Journal also discovered that Mr. Largue had been convicted of criminal fraud last July in Nassau County. The crime: In 1994, he had bilked fellow shareholders in a Nassau County co-op building out of $39,000. Last November, he was ordered to pay $75,000 restitution and was sentenced to five years probation.
They learned that he had to obtain permission from his probation officer to leave New York and travel to Edmonton. They also learned that Mr. Largue had been bankrupt in the late 1980′s. They learned that in the eyes of his estranged wife, Jeanette Largue, he was a “pathological liar.” (She declined to speak to The Observer .)
And they learned that their onslaught of bad coverage was getting to him. After a television interview in Edmonton, he broke down in tears, lamenting that newspaper accounts on the Internet had reached his children.
The only problem was, he has no children.
By the time Mr. Largue returned to New York on March 3, he was the laughingstock of Canada.
New Yorkers, however, took little notice. And after having been so gregarious in Edmonton, he grew coy in New York. He would not take or return The Observer ‘s repeated phone calls to his Uniondale, L.I., office, though a woman answering the phone acknowledged he was there. At his parents’ home nearby, where he lives part of the time, his mother would say only that the family had no comment. His lawyer, Cheryl Vollweiler, of the Manhattan firm Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker, declined to comment, except to say that she was no longer representing Mr. Largue.
But the fact that Nassau County has transferred oversight of his probation to Queens County indicates he may be spending more time in Queens than with his parents.
“He’s a guy who is a finder of situations,” said Joseph Sciarrotta, director of Nassau County’s Probation Department. “His probation has not been violated. But we’re looking into the circumstances” surrounding his business in Edmonton.
In Search of a Team
Mr. Largue worked as a stockbroker from 1989 to 1992. In 1993, he was suspended for two years by the National Association of Securities Dealers and fined $10,000; he agreed to pay $48,337 in restitution. Over the last few years, Mr. Largue has approached numerous professional teams as a potential buyer or investor. He has had conversations with the Buffalo Sabres, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Montreal Canadiens, the Hartford Whalers (twice) and the Pittsburgh Penguins, in addition to baseball’s expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays and a Canadian football team.
In the course of making overtures around the league, Mr. Largue made numerous contacts with league officials, team executives and lawyers who have relationships with the teams. He used each contact’s credibility to enhance his own. For example, he got to know former New York Yankee general counsel and Wachtel & Masyr partner William Dowling. Mr. Dowling had no comment on Mr. Largue’s dealings with the Oilers, but he admitted that he had had no idea of Mr. Largue’s past. Later, to assuage skeptical new business acquaintances, Mr. Largue would produce a letter from Mr. Dowling in which the lawyer wrote that he was representing Mr. Largue and Mr. Mittendorf in their 1994 attempt to purchase the Hartford Whalers. “My clients are substantial investors with backgrounds in both business and hockey,” read the letter, which The Observer obtained. Mr. Dowling described the mysterious Mr. Mittendorf as a former member of the board of directors at Credit Suisse and said, “He has been the owner of a professional hockey team in Switzerland and has worked closely with Mr. Largue in funding significant projects in the United States.” A spokesman for Credit Suisse in Zurich told The Observer that nobody with such a name had ever been on the company’s board.
In his dealings with the Hartford Whalers in both 1994 and 1997, he was represented by Coleman Levy, a Farmington, Conn., lawyer with a sound reputation in the sports business. Early in Mr. Largue’s courtship of the Edmonton Oilers, Mr. Levy vouched for Mr. Largue to The Edmonton Journal , referring to Mr. Largue’s backers as “very elite people.” Mr. Levy also reportedly said he had a telephone conversation with a man claiming to be Mr. Mittendorf.
Mr. Levy did not return phone calls from The Observer .
In some cases, Mr. Largue got close enough to get a look at a team’s financial statements and to garner some positive press. In Tampa and Hartford, no one checked his claims about his hockey background or his Swiss backer. Newspaper accounts portrayed him as he had portrayed himself. He kept those clippings in a scrapbook.
He apparently used each abandoned negotiation as a launching pad for the next, but never in any of his dealings did anyone meet the elusive Lester Mittendorf. Lawyers for another N.H.L. team once received a document purportedly signed by Mr. Mittendorf, in response to demands for financial references. The letter was sent to the team’s lawyers by Wilson Elser, Mr. Largue’s law firm at the time. But despite their constant entreaties that Mr. Largue set up a meeting with the Swiss investor, and despite constant promises from Mr. Largue that he would do so, Mr. Mittendorf never materialized.
And as Mr. Largue’s tales grew more elaborate, even those who had initially extended him the benefit of the doubt began to grow skeptical.
“Can I say categorically that Mittendorf doesn’t exist? No,” said a hockey executive who has dealt often with Mr. Largue. “Do I believe he exists? No. Would I be surprised if we learned that he absolutely did not exist? No.”
When The Edmonton Sun asked Mr. Largue for a publicity photo, he sent along a picture that looked as though it had been taken in his mother’s kitchen. “There he was at the kitchen table,” said Brendan Dlouhy, a photographer at the Sun . “You know, the plastic tablecloth with the St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks, the salt-and-pepper thingy and an overloaded electrical outlet in the background. Not exactly a man with $100 million at his side.”