For a "rogue, isolated criminal,'' as NBA commissioner David Stern once described Tim Donaghy, the former referee sure placed a lot of suspiciously timed phone calls to colleague Scott Foster.
Fox News reported yesterday that Donaghy called Foster 134 times between October 2006 and April 2007 - the period during which Donaghy has admitted to betting on basketball games or providing confidential NBA information to two gambling associates from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Calls between Foster and Donaghy, who is awaiting sentencing on interstate gambling and wire-fraud charges, occurred immediately before and after 54 of the 57 games Donaghy officiated from the beginning of the 2006-07 season to mid-March, according to Fox.
The majority of the conversations lasted less than 2 minutes and took place hours before or after games one of the men officiated, the network reported, citing court documents and phone records.
But does it mean that Foster, a 14-year veteran referee, had anything to do with Donaghy's gambling scheme?
When reached by Fox and asked whether he is being investigated by the NBA, the government or anyone else, he answered, "Not that I know of,'' and declined to comment on the nature of the calls.
The NBA said in a statement last night that the disclosure of Donaghy's phone calls is old news to prosecutors.
"The government had complete access to Tim Donaghy's phone records and thoroughly investigated this matter, including conducting an interview of referee Scott Foster,'' the statement said. "The government has said that they have found no evidence of criminal conduct aside from that of Mr. Donaghy. Once again, the only criminal conduct is that of Mr. Donaghy.''
League sources who know Donaghy and Foster - who were close friends - strongly doubted yesterday that Foster would be involved with illegal gambling.
"Scott is a good guy, and it bothers me to think his name should even come up in any of this. This is another case of the media trying to stir something from nothing,'' one source said. "There's no way Scott Foster had anything to do with Donaghy's gambling.''
Vicki Herr, the attorney for Marcus Hook's Thomas Martino, who has admitted to delivering cash payments to Donaghy in exchange for betting tips, said Foster was not involved in the three-man gambling ring.
"He was not a member of that group,'' Herr said yesterday.
Jack McMahon Jr., the lawyer for the third member of that group, James "Baba'' Battista, was unavailable yesterday. Battista, of Phoenixville, has pleaded guilty to interstate gambling and, like Martino, is to be sentenced next week. Donaghy's sentencing is set for July 29.
While the phone calls between Donaghy and Foster are suspicious because of their timing and short duration, federal prosecutors' actions in recent months suggest there isn't any evidence Foster was involved in illegal activity.
Court filings by Donaghy's attorney, John Lauro, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Goldberg, the lead prosecutor on the case, indicate that Donaghy not only dimed out Battista and Martino, but also leveled allegations against NBA executives and other referees. There is no mention of Foster in any of those filings.
Federal cooperation agreements typically require a defendant or witness to reveal everything the person knows about activity related to the charged crimes or other crimes of which they have knowledge.
If Foster was involved with the gambling and Donaghy withheld such information from investigators, the ex-ref would have violated that agreement and prosecutors in Brooklyn would likely have revoked their letter asking U.S. District Judge Carol Amon for leniency at his sentencing. Goldberg, who declined to comment yesterday, has not done that.
"We've never taken the position that Mr. Donaghy has lied to us,'' Goldberg told Amon last week at a restitution hearing.
Lauro could not be reached yesterday.
Foster, 41, a native of Silver Spring, Md. , who currently lives in Woodbine, Md., was one of Donaghy's last few friends in the league, according to two of Donaghy's former golf buddies at the Radley Run Country Club in West Chester. But that wouldn't have stopped the hot-tempered referee from handing Foster over to the FBI to earn a lighter sentence, the sources said.
"This guy is a rat of the highest order,'' one of the sources said of Donaghy, 41. "If Scott had anything to do with this, Donaghy would have dimed him out, like he has everyone else associated with this. Tim would work every possible angle to get out of this, and if Foster was involved, he would have tried to do something there, too.''
One of the NBA sources who knows both men said it is common for referees to communicate frequently.
"Guys in this league grow close, sometimes closer than their families and wives, because they're on the road and they do everything together,'' the source said. "These guys know intimate things about each other. There are some things you talk about after a game with another ref that you wouldn't talk about with your wife. You do that because other guys in the league understand what you're talking about and what you're going through. I think that's all that may have been involved.'' *
Daily News sports writer Phil Jasner contributed to this report.