Don King squares up to Mr Maffia

The boxing promoter Don King, his electric-shock hairstyle an easy subject for the courtroom artists, was again in a New York courtroom yesterday, locked in battle with a former colleague called Mr Maffia.

Mr King, on trial for allegedly defrauding Lloyds of London of $350,000,(pounds 223,000) has been forced to put on hold plans to relaunch the career of the former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson. He may face bigger problems, perhaps as early as next week, when the jury is asked to deliberate on the nine counts of fraud, each of which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. If Mr King is convicted, Mike Tyson, himself only recently out of prison, may have to find a new manager.

The last 13 days in the mahogany-lined courtroom of Judge Lawrence McKenna, 15 floors above the streets of downtown Manhattan, have offered some moments of theatre. There was stunned silence late on Wednesday, when the defence, seeking to discredit the key prosecution witness, Joseph Maffia, played a tape of a telephone conversation he had with Mr King.

On the tape, recorded in May 1992, Mr Maffia was heard to shout down the line twice over: "I'm going to kick your ass". When a confused-sounding but not unduly ruffled Mr King asks who is on the line, Mr Maffia responds in an extremely abusive manner.

A former controller, or chief accountant, at Don King Productions, Mr Maffia is vital to the prosecution. Mr King is accused of wrongfully claiming the $350,000 from Lloyds arising from a fight in June 1991 involving Julio Cesar Chavez that had to be cancelled after Mr Chavez cut his nose in training.

Prosecutors allege that after the fight was called off, the original contract between Mr King and Mr Chavez was doctored to include a rider referring to $350,000 in non-refundable training and maintenance costs, which were then wrapped into the insurance claim to Lloyds. Mr King allegedly wanted to the money to help cover a $736,000 loan he had made to Mr Chavez.

Mr Maffia claimed earlier this week that he had only been able to find some $130,000 to $150,000 in legitimate expenses and that he had been ordered personally by Mr King to pad them out. "He instructed me to deem a portion of the $736,000 cheque for training expenses," Mr Maffia testified.

Apparently nervous and refusing to look Mr King in the eye, Mr Maffia also explained how the final figure of the claim was arrived at. "He said, 'Put down $150,000, $200,000, $250,000', I don't remember the exact figure," Mr Maffia testified. He said Mr King himself later settled on $350,000."

Mr Maffia was forced to resign from Don King Productions in September 1991 and his telephone outburst apparently came after his former employer tried to have his accounting licence revoked and his unemployment insurance withdrawn. "I just wanted to yell at him," he explained to the court.

The tape was nonetheless a useful weapon for the defence team. Afterwards, Mr King, who has several of his minders in the courtroom gallery who watch over him even when he visits the lavatory, seemed delighted afterwards. "Anyone can see this is a put-up job," he said to reporters.

But the prosecution was back at work yesterday, questioning Richard Hummers, who became vice president for finance at Don King Productions two months before Mr Maffia's departure and was responsible for filing the insurance claim to Lloyds. Testifying under immunity, Mr Hummers admitted that when he was preparing the claim, he had difficulty getting access to the original Chavez contract, that the prosecution said had been altered. "I don't think I was able to get the contract the first time I asked for it," he said.

According to the prosecutors, it would not have been normal for fighters' contracts to contain such a provision for non-refundable training expenses. Moreover, Mr Chavez himself testified last week that he never saw the $350,000 that Mr King has claimed was paid to him.

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