PETE RUGGIERI thought he had it all, the inside track to winning the majority of bets he would place on the NBA. The method was simple: bet games that Tim Donaghy officiated.

Ruggieri, a noted professional gambler, told federal investigators 2 weeks ago that he picked up a trend over the last several years from betting acquaintances who were winning at a 60 to 70 percent rate on games officiated by the disgraced NBA referee, his lawyer told the Daily News yesterday.

The alarming rate caused Ruggieri to take a closer look.

Lawyer Christopher Warren said Ruggieri, of Glen Mills, would "piggyback'' bets made by another pro gambler known as "Jack," whom he met in 2004, and also by James "Baa Baa" Battista, of Phoenixville. Warren said Ruggieri would look for changes in the betting line and the over/under.

Battista is one of two bookmakers with whom Donaghy allegedly did business. Battista is expected to be indicted although the charges have not been specified, said his lawyer, Jack McMahon Jr.

Bettors were tipped off about which games Donaghy was working, but it is not known what information Donaghy shared, if any, or whether he impacted games in which he officiated.

"This 'Jack' asked Pete where he could place bets," Warren said from his Center City law office. "Pete referred to a few offshore betting operations. It wasn't long before Pete noticed 'Jack' and Battista were winning at a 60 to 70 percent clip. They were games being refereed by Tim Donaghy. Pete started watching games that Donaghy refereed and put the two together."

The picture Warren paints is of his client on the periphery of the Donaghy situation, although Warren acknowledged Ruggieri knew Donaghy. It also has stirred a firestorm of media attention that Ruggieri said he does not want. Yesterday on the phone with Warren, who was in the presence of a Daily News reporter, Ruggieri was rambling nervously and obviously agitated.

"I just want to be left alone," said Ruggieri, who has not spoken publicly about the case previously. "I've been vilified and made to look bad in the press. I really didn't do anything wrong. I don't want [reporters] in the front of my house anymore, or near my home down the shore. I just want to be left alone."

Ruggieri was not the only one to pick up on the trend, Warren said. He said Las Vegas lines would change in games that Donaghy officiated.

Federal investigators looking into the allegations that Donaghy bet on and possibly fixed NBA games met with Ruggieri July 22 at Warren's Center City law office, inquiring as to what Ruggieri knew about Donaghy's situation.

"Pete never had any gambling connection to Donaghy whatsoever," maintained Warren. "All of these allegations that Pete used to place bets for Donaghy is based on hearsay and innuendo. It's not even remotely close to being a fact.

"What is a fact is that Ruggieri is a professional gambler. It's not something he hides. It's on his tax return. That's how he makes a living. Pete is a professional gambler and he knows other professional gamblers. The gambling community is small, where a lot of people know a lot of people. There's a lot of information that gets passed along.''

FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams said New York federal authorities have asked the Philadelphia bureau to help with the investigation. She would neither confirm nor deny that the area's other NBA referees have been interviewed.

Donaghy, 40, a graduate of Cardinal O'Hara and Villanova who moved from West Chester to Bradenton, Fla., in 2005, resigned in a letter to commissioner David Stern on July 9.

He reportedly was planning to turn himself in as early as last week in New York, but now is not expected to do so until next week. Stern has said Donaghy is contemplating a plea deal with authorities. A law-enforcement source familiar with the case told the Daily News that the fact that he has yet to surrender doesn't necessarily mean that the case has hit a snag, or that investigators are casting a wider net.

Donaghy's lawyer, John Lauro, did not respond to a message.

Federal law-enforcement officials heard Donaghy's name mentioned in wiretaps involving the Gambino crime family in New York.

Warren insisted Ruggieri never had any ties to organized crime, as has been suggested in published reports.

"Obviously, someone dropped his name," Warren said. "We don't know who."

McMahon, Battista's attorney, also said his client did not have ties to organized crime, describing reports to the contrary as "totally not true."

McMahon said Battista has not been called to testify before a grand jury.

Asked about his client's state of mind, McMahon said: "If you're the target of a federal investigation, if you are on the front pages of major newspapers and you're not scared, my defense would be insanity. He's also strong; he understands the situation. All he can do is defend himself."

There is a connection between Ruggieri, 39, and Battista, 42. They were in a group of six who were prosecuted by the Delaware County District Attorney's office in 1998 for criminal conspiracy and bookmaking, along with Anthony Rufo, 40, of Broomall; Jeffrey Rossin, 44, of Richboro; Steven McLaughlin, 38, of Las Vegas; and Patrick Smyth, 36, of Havertown. McLaughlin is originally from Delaware County. All received community service and were admitted into the county's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for nonviolent offenders.

There does not appear to be a direct link between the current investigation and that case, according to lawyers involved in the '98 case and Delco law-enforcement sources. That case, an offshoot of a larger investigation that originated in New York, turned out to be a much smaller bookmaking operation than authorities first believed, sources said.

"They had a nice thing going, those guys just got greedy," said a source, who asked not to be identified and who was once familiar with the gambling scene in Delaware County. "We stopped taking their action. But their whole clique, they were a crew who saw the movie 'Goodfellas' one too many times. They were wannabe gangsters, from these nice families in the nice suburbs. They used to deal with bets in the hundreds, sometimes the thousands. Then they all got older, made more money and were able to bet more money.

"But I don't think any of them were mobbed-up then. I doubt it now. They were mostly bettors who were too smart for their own good. They thought they knew more than they did."

Ruggieri, a two-time all-Catholic League nose guard and 1986 Monsignor Bonner graduate, played golf with Donaghy, according to a friend, and Donaghy frequently ate at Marina's restaurant in Havertown, when Battista was a co-owner in the 1990s, said a number of sources who knew both Donaghy and Battista. Battista graduated from O'Hara in 1983; Donaghy is an '85 graduate.

Ruggieri's legal troubles did not end in Delaware County.

In 2002, Ruggieri pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to engage in unlawful transactions for his role in a Las Vegas betting operation linked to a bookie named "Skate" in New Jersey and New York City, according to court documents. Ruggieri was a co-defendant with McLaughlin, Rufo and Alan Denkenson, of Las Vegas. The four pleaded guilty in Clark County court in 2002 and were fined $2,000 each, records show.

Ruggieri was charged with depositing money from the operation into sports betting accounts at the Horseshoe and Mirage casinos in Las Vegas. The accounts were maintained by McLaughlin and Rufo, and Rufo paid the long-distance phone bills to a Fort Washington phone company, authorities alleged.

John Momot Jr., who represented the four men in the Vegas case, said Donaghy was not involved.

"Was this ref's name ever mentioned? No, not to my knowledge," Momot said yesterday. "Fugetaboutit."

As for Ruggieri, he just wants to fade into the background, Warren said.

"He's not the key," Warren said. "He's not even in the castle. He's the guy that gives you directions to the castle." *

Daily News sports writer Phil Jasner contributed to this story.