Giants Accused of Forging Game Memorabilia
HACKENSACK, N.J. (CN) - Four days before Super Bowl XLVIII, a sports memorabilia seller sued the New York Giants and Eli Manning, accusing them of forging "game-worn" jerseys and helmets, including a Manning Super Bowl helmet that sits in the Football Hall of Fame.
In a scathing 65-page, 16-count lawsuit in Bergen County Superior Court, Eric Inselberg accuses the Giants of a "complete breakdown of integrity and institutional control" and sued the team and its owner John Mara. Also named as defendants are quarterback Manning, two executives, thee equipment managers and Barry Barone, who owns Park Cleaners in Rutherford, the Giants' official team cleaners.
Inselberg claims that because of the defendants' actions, which included lying about and covering up the scheme, he was indicted on four charges of mail fraud for reselling the forged memorabilia, charges he says the government later dismissed.
Inselberg, who describes himself in the lawsuit as a lifelong Giants fan who attended Giants Stadium's 1976 inaugural game, says he started collecting memorabilia at a young age and that by the mid-2000s he "began to arise as one of the foremost sports memorabilia collectors and resellers in the nation."
To secure memorabilia, he says, he built relationships with people in the Giants' organization, including equipment manager Ed Wagner and assistant equipment managers Joe and Ed Skiba, all defendants.
He claims that Joe Skiba in particular was "personally involved in providing approximately 500 to 600 Giants jerseys to Inselberg each year for several years."
But in 2008, Inselberg says, "the government learned that Inselberg may have sold game-issued or authentic jerseys to other memorabilia traders that were ultimately sold - fraudulently - as game-worn."
Inselberg claims that he "never intentionally misrepresented any items of memorabilia he sold," but that "several Giants employees, including the franchise quarterback, repeatedly engaged in the distribution of fraudulent Giants memorabilia."
To support his claims, Inselberg says that in 2001, "[Equipment Manager Ed] Wagner directed defendant Barone to intentionally damage multiple Giants jerseys to make them appear to have been game-worn when they had not been."
He adds: "Inselberg discovered this when he walked into the Park Cleaners store and caught Barone in the act of doctoring jerseys."
Inselberg says the fraud went all the way up to Eli Manning, who he claims "has on several occasions directed [Assistant Equipment Manager] Skiba to take non-game-worn helmets and make them appear to have been worn so that Manning could pass them off as the actual helmets worn by him during games."
Inselberg claims that in 2005, "Manning instructed Joe Skiba to provide him with a helmet that appeared to have been worn in a game" and then "falsely claimed that it was a helmet used during his 2004 rookie season."
Inselberg claims that in 2008, he "obtained Eli Manning's one and only game-worn Super Bowl XLII helmet from Ed Skiba," and that later that year, "Joe Skiba took a different helmet and made it appear as if it had been worn by Manning during Super Bowl XLII," an item the team's brass labeled - internally - as a 'replica show helmet.'
Inselberg says he "learned about the forgery ... when a press release claimed that Manning's Super Bowl XLII helmet - the helmet Inselberg had in his possession - would be on display at the Sports Museum of America in New York City."
The fake was later moved to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Inselberg claims, which has "has caused countless visitors to the Hall of Fame to be duped."
Inselberg says his claims against Manning are backed up by Steiner Sports, which has "received numerous complaints from customers who purchased Manning's supposedly game-worn helmets."
Inselberg claims that "the angry customers told Steiner that the purchased helmets' markings failed to match the markings that appeared in pictures of Manning's helmets that were taken during games."
And he claims that "accordingly, when the government came knocking on the Giants' door, the response was a cover-up that threw Inselberg under the bus to protect themselves and the team."
Inselberg claims that Giants personnel who forged much of the memorabilia "were coerced, convinced, manipulated, persuaded, instructed and intimidated into lying by the Giants' own General Counsel, defendant [William] Heller, who was concerned about the potential fallout should Giants employees and vendors be implicated in misconduct by Inselberg."
Inselberg claims that Barone and Park Cleaners' "ability to continue its lucrative relationship with the Giants was expressly or implicitly conditioned upon Barone providing false statements and testimony that was favorable to the Giants but detrimental to Inselberg."
The lawsuit claims that Joe Skiba "dramatically understated the volume of memorabilia he provided to Inselberg in a typical year." Inselberg adds that "a significant reason why the Giants deceived the federal investigation and the Grand Jury was because of their own long-standing involvement in game-used memorabilia fraud."
Inselberg says he was charged with mail fraud in October 2011, but the federal government dropped the case against him in May 2013, stating that their office "reevaluated the strength of the case in light of some new facts that were pointed out to us by defense counsel, and we determined that the prosecution was no longer appropriate."
Inselberg claims that the Giants' fraud and his indictment caused him "to lose numerous preexisting personal and business relationships" and destroyed his memorabilia business.
He also claims to have lost $10 million in assets on patents he could not renew, and spent more than $700,000 in legal fees.
The lawsuit case was filed four days before East Rutherford, N.J.'s MetLife Stadium, home of the Giants and Jets, is to host New Jersey's first Super Bowl, between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, who are quarterbacked by Eli's brother, Peyton, who is not involved in the lawsuit.
Reaction to the lawsuit was swift.
The Giants issued a statement Wednesday, saying that "this suit is completely without any merit whatsoever and we will defend it vigorously."
Eli Manning said in his own statement that "the Giants told me this suit is completely without merit and I have no reason to believe otherwise. The Giants are going to fight it and so will I."
Giants treasurer Jonathan Tisch said on WFAN's "Boomer & Carton" show that "we know that [Eli] is a first-class guy and comes from a fantastic family" and added that the Giants "just feel that there's no merit to the case and the Giants will always defend themselves." Tisch is not a party to the complaint.
Archie Manning, Eli's father and a former New Orleans Saints quarterback, told Fox's "Good Day New York" on Thursday that "memorabilia has always been a little bit out of control, a lot of fraud there. ... I just know about the Giants organization, what they've been like for a long, long time, and we tried to teach our children to do the right thing, so we'll see what this is about, but I don't think Eli or any of the Giants has purposely done anything wrong."
When asked about the lawsuit Thursday during media availability before the Super Bowl, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning offered a "no comment" to ESPN before chuckling.
All three Manning quarterbacks have quasi-reverential status among football fans, Peyton for his personality, Eli for his modesty, and all three for their accomplishments.
Calls placed by Courthouse News to Park Cleaners in Rutherford, N.J. were not answered.
Inselberg seeks damages for RICO violations, tortious interference, malicious prosecution, trade libel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, misappropriation, breach of contract, civil conspiracy, aiding and abetting and negligent supervision.
Inselberg's attorneys, Brian Brook of Manhattan-based Clinton, Brook & Peed and Michael Kasanoff of Red Bank, N.J., said in a statement that their client "is simply trying to hold those individuals accountable for their actions and the harm that it has caused to him in being falsely accused in a federal indictment."