A Big Ten football officiating team that came under scrutiny for its performance in two conference games last month was led by a crew chief with a history of bankruptcy, casino gambling, child abuse and allegations of sexual harassment, a Yahoo! Sports investigation has revealed.
The revelations about the Big Ten referee, Stephen Pamon, come four months after an NBA referee pleaded guilty to felony charges stemming from allegations he bet on NBA games in which he officiated and provided inside information to high-stakes gamblers.
Although there is no evidence linking Pamon to gambling on games, the NBA incident rattled the sports world and cast light on the conduct of officials. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was one of several sports executives who addressed the situation, and he detailed steps the Big Ten takes to investigate the backgrounds of its officials.
Yet despite the heightened focus on background checks and the integrity of officials, Pamon – an employee of the sheriff's department in Cook County, Ill., and a Big Ten official since 1988 – served as chief for a seven-man officiating crew this season.
When reached at his home Tuesday, Delany said, "I don't have any comment on that right now.''
Public records, news reports and interviews with several people who know the longtime college football referee revealed the following:
• He and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2002 after the couple amassed $429,407 in liabilities, and two of the creditors were casinos.
• He allegedly has gambled at casinos as far back as the 1980s, and a sister-in-law said gambling losses incurred by Pamon and Pamon's wife led to the couple filing for bankruptcy.
• In 1997, he was charged with repeatedly beating three of his girlfriend's four sons with an electrical cord. He told authorities he beat the boys three times.
• He allegedly was fired by the Chicago Police Department in 1996 after two female officers accused him of sexual harassment, according to published reports that cited law-enforcement officials as sources.
• One of Pamon's former wives accused him during a court hearing in 1994 of striking her and sexually assaulting her 19-year-old niece, according to court records.
Pamon and his present wife declined to comment when contacted at their residence in a suburb outside of Chicago.
Pamon and the seven-man officiating team he oversees came under fire after a series of controversial calls during a game between Penn State and Purdue on Nov. 3. Afterward, Purdue Coach Joe Tiller filed an official complaint with the Big Ten. The performance reportedly led the Big Ten to suspend the crew for the final week of the regular season. But before the suspension took effect Nov. 17, the conference allowed the officials to work a game between Illinois and Ohio State.
The embattled crew prompted more criticism for a call in that game that led to Illinois' first touchdown in a 28-21 victory over No. 1-ranked Ohio State, the Buckeyes' only loss of the season. The loss dropped Ohio State to No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, but after every team ranked ahead of it lost in the final weeks of the season, the Buckeyes regained the top spot in the rankings and will play LSU for the national championship on Jan. 7.
By policy, the Big Ten does not discuss the performance of specific officials and has not confirmed whether Pamon's crew was suspended, although the crew did not work any games during the final weekend of Big Ten play.
The Pamon File
Public records, news reports and interviews with several people who know longtime college football referee Stephen Pamon revealed the following:
He and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2002 after the couple amassed $429,407 in liabilities, and two of the creditors were casinos.
He allegedly has gambled at casinos as far back as the 1980s, and a sister-in-law said gambling losses incurred by Pamon and Pamon's wife led to the couple filing for bankruptcy.
In 1997, he was charged with repeatedly beating three of his girlfriend's four sons with an electrical cord. He told authorities he beat the boys three times.
He allegedly was fired by Chicago Police Department in 1996 after two female officers accused him of sexual harassment, according to published reports that cited law-enforcement
officials as sources.
One of Pamon's former wives accused him during a court hearing in 1994 of striking her and sexually assaulting her 19-year-old niece, according to court records.
But in July, with the scandal that involved NBA referee Tim Donaghy still fresh in minds of sports fans, Delany addressed background checks of Big Ten officials and the threat of gambling.
"We get permission from the officials to look at bank records, financial records, good debt and bad debt,'' Delany was quoted as telling reporters in July at the Big Ten's annual football media event. "If you see something bothersome, you ask more questions. If you continued to be bothered, you go another step with an investigation.
"We meet with the FBI periodically. We try to keep the lines of communication open. They come to us if they hear, see or feel something that's unusual. If we had a serious issue where we needed to dig deeper, we have resources where we get security or a private investigator to dig deeper.''
Of gambling, Delany was quoted as saying, "If there's one issue that could bring intercollegiate athletics to its knees, it's the gambling issue because it goes right to the integrity of the game."
The NCAA, in large part to safeguard against a gambling scandal, conducts background checks on football officials who work bowl games and basketball officials who work postseason tournament games. Pamon was an alternate referee for the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
The NCAA is unable to discuss specifics related to individuals who may have gone through an NCAA background check, according to an NCAA spokesman who cited confidentiality concerns.
"In general, individuals are precluded from officiating in a bowl game if they have a felony conviction or a conviction for sports bookmaking, sports bribery or sports wagering,'' Bob Williams, managing director of public and media relations, wrote in an e-mail. "The NCAA background checks in football are performed for those officials who seek to work in Division I bowl games only.''
In addition to officiating Big Ten games since 1988, Pamon has worked the Sugar, Holiday and Independence bowls, according to information provided by the Arena Football League. Pamon has worked for the Arena Football League for seven years – a stint interrupted in 2001, when he worked for the now-defunct XFL – and he is scheduled to work for the Arena Football League during the 2008 season, according to the league.
The Big Ten is among seven of the 11 top division football conferences that takes steps beyond the NCAA's screening process of officials, according to a survey of the conferences.
"In general, all football and men's and women's basketball officials are checked by a third-party service for criminal and financial records," Big Ten spokesman Scott Chipman wrote in an e-mail. "If this initial research turns up any red flags, additional research will be done."
The Big Ten has a specific code of conduct for all officials that "basically states general expectations for professionalism on and off the field while also prohibiting gambling on sports," according to Chipman. He declined to provide a copy of the code of conduct, saying it was an internal document.
No one contacted by Yahoo! Sports said they had knowledge that Stephen Pamon ever bet on college football games or gambled on anything other than legal casino blackjack. Pamon, 56, has never been charged with a gambling-related offense, according to a records search by Yahoo! Sports.
We like to hold ourselves to the standard of judges. You go into a courtroom, you expect a certain background and behavior from a judge. We're not much different. Character is the real issue.
- Barry Mano, National Association of Sports Officials founder
The Big Ten began background checks three years ago, according to the conference. But criminal issues involving Pamon surfaced publicly in news reports and court records in 1997 when he was charged with beating three sons of his present wife. Stephen Pamon has been married at least three times.
Stephen Pamon, listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds in court documents, was accused of forcing the three boys between the ages of 8 and 13 to strip down to their underwear before he beat them. He was convicted of battery after the original felony charges were reduced to one misdemeanor count.
News reports published by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times detailed the allegations of abuse against the children and included allegations that Pamon was fired from the Chicago Police Department in 1996 after he was accused of sexual harassment by at least two female Chicago police officers.
The Tribune reported that Pamon had been charged with sexual assault in 1995 when one of his previous wives and another female family member filed a complaint against him during a divorce proceeding. The charges were later dismissed, according to the Tribune.
Patricia Pamon, the former wife, accused Stephen Pamon during a 1994 court hearing of raping her 19-year-old niece in the couple's home and striking Patricia Pamon, according to court documents obtained by Yahoo! Sports.
Patricia Pamon declined to comment when reached by phone.
No additional documents about Patricia Pamon's allegations are archived in the Cook County criminal court records, said the criminal court clerk. If criminal charges are dropped or dismissed, records of those charges are not available to the public.
Some employers request a report that includes all arrests of an individual and all criminal charges filed against an individual. But that report, commonly referred to as a rap sheet, is available only with the individual's authorization.
Stephen Pamon is a longtime acquaintance of Mike Sheahan, the former sheriff of Cook County, Ill., who also had officiated Big Ten football games as far back as the 1980s, according to news reports, Pamon's former colleagues and a former girlfriend who is the mother of one of Pamon's children.
When the Chicago Police Department allegedly fired Pamon in 1996, he joined Sheahan as a full-time employee of the sheriff's department, according to published reports.
After the referee was charged with beating the three boys, he was reportedly suspended from his job with the sheriff's department in 1997 but for an undetermined length of time. Gina Banks, the referee's sister-in-law, said the Big Ten also suspended him from his job as a referee and said the suspension lasted for at least a year.
Attempts to confirm the suspensions with the Cook County Sheriff's Department were unsuccessful.
Pamon eventually regained his positions with the sheriff's department and the Big Ten, although it is unclear when that took place.
Although the Big Ten rarely comments on officiating, three days after the Purdue-Penn State game in which Pamon's crew drew scrutiny, Tiller told reporters he had spoken about the matter with Big Ten officials. Tiller said Big Ten officials agreed something needed to be done. "They assured me they would take proper action," Purdue's head coach said.
The NCAA says it conducts background checks on officials who work postseason football bowl games and postseason games for men's and women's basketball. Six of the 11 Division I football conferences conduct background checks of their officials,
according to a survey of the conferences.
Conferences that conduct their own background checks:
Atlantic Coast Conference
Mountain West Conference
Conference that don't conduct background checks:
Western Athletic Conference
Later that week, The Sporting News reported the Big Ten would suspend the officiating crew for the final week of the regular season and might fire members of the crew after its poor performance in the Penn State-Purdue game.
News of the controversial calls and the reported suspension of Pamon's crew troubled two retired law-enforcement officers and one active law-enforcement officer who worked with Pamon in the early 1990s on the Chicago Terrorism Task Force. They suspected Pamon might have a gambling problem.
The three former members of the task force, who spoke with Yahoo! Sports on condition of anonymity because they feared violating law enforcement protocol, said Pamon once made a phone call from Las Vegas to several task force members in the early 1990s, told them he was low on money and asked them to wire him about $400 each.
William Dyson, a retired FBI agent who oversaw the terrorism task force at the time, said he recalled one agent telling Dyson he loaned Pamon money and was worried about getting repaid. After the incident, Dyson said, rumors about Pamon and gambling circulated throughout the task force, comprised of members of the FBI, Illinois State Police and Chicago Police Department, about 20 people in all.
At the time Pamon worked for the Chicago Police Department as a fully sworn officer.
"I'm not even sure that they knew there was a gambling problem," Dyson said during a recent interview, referring to the task force members. "I think it all came from the fact that he borrowed money in connection with Las Vegas. And I think people probably made the assumption that he lost money and that's why he called."
One former member of the Chicago Police Department said he was among eight to 10 members of the task force who loaned Pamon $400. Another former member of the Chicago Police Department said Pamon was urged to promptly repay the money and to do it he needed another member of the task force to co-sign for a loan from the Chicago Patrolmen's credit union.
A few years later, Pamon owed the Chicago Patrolmen's credit union $16,278.37, according to court records. That was one of 11 financial judgments and tax liens filed against Pamon between 1989 and 2004 with the amount owed totaling $89,897.25.
When the Pamons filed jointly for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in May 2, 2002, the Empress Casino claimed it was owed $524 and the Horseshoe Casino Hammond Corp. was listed as a creditor, but did not file a financial claim, according to bankruptcy documents.
Officials for the Empress Casino and Horseshoe Casino Hammond Corp. declined to comment, saying information concerning a customer's debts is confidential.
But Gina Banks, Stephen Pamon's sister-in-law, said she saw the Big Ten referee win and lose more than $20,000 at blackjack tables on gambling boats and, on at least a dozen occasions, saw him playing blackjack for a minimum of $100 a hand.
Banks also said gambling losses incurred by Stephen Pamon and Pamon's wife, Dionne, led to the couple declaring bankruptcy.
Between 2000 and 2002, Banks said, she watched Dionne and Stephen Pamon playing blackjack together on a gambling boat in Indiana and in an exclusive area that required a minimum bet of $100 a hand. Stephen and Dionne Pamon would sit two or three seats apart at the same blackjack table and sometimes play multiple hands, according to Banks. Banks also said she heard the couple arguing about gambling losses four to five times and eventually "they lost everything."
If there's one issue that could bring intercollegiate athletics to its knees, it's the gambling issue because it goes right to the integrity of the game.
- Jim Delany, Big Ten Commissioner
About a year after Stephen Pamon and his wife jointly filed for bankruptcy in 2002, the case was dismissed. But in the process the couple lost a $130,000 home and other assets, documents show.
Banks said her relationship with Stephen and Dionne Pamon has grown strained. But she said that should not undermine the credibility of her allegations that gambling losses led to the couple's financial woes.
"There are two things I never do, and that's lie or steal," Gina Banks said.
Cynthia Wilkins, the mother of one of Pamon's sons, said Pamon visited Las Vegas at least twice a year to gamble when they dated off and on for about four years in the 1980s. She said she joined him on one trip and watched him play blackjack.
"I went with him and that's what he did," she said. "That's all that he did."
Letitia Watts, the mother of another of Pamon's sons, said she heard Pamon took occasional trips to casinos but knew nothing else about his alleged gambling habits.
In 2005, according to court records, Dionne Pamon sought a court order of protection against Stephen Pamon. Banks said she assisted her sister because she wanted Dionne to get out of what Banks said she considers an abusive relationship. The court rejected the motion when a judge ruled that Dionne Pamon had provided insufficient evidence to secure the protective order.
Court documents filed Sept. 14, 2007 in Cook County indicate Pamon owes Cynthia Wilkins $33,534.22 in delinquent child-support payments.
Wilkins said Pamon never voluntarily made child support payments and the money had to be garnished from his wages. She said she had lost track of how much Pamon owed her because the payments frequently fell behind and the son she had with Pamon is now 23, five years past the period for mandatory child support payments.
Court records show Letitia Watts, the mother of another of Pamon's sons, secured child support payments from Pamon only after seeking a court order.
Getting paid back from Pamon was a concern for members of the Chicago Terrorism Task Force who loaned Pamon money when Pamon called from Las Vegas in the early 1990s, said Dyson, the retired FBI agent who oversaw the task force.
"People thought they were being stiffed, and all of a sudden it was resolved," Dyson said. "… I never really heard much about it after that."
In the Nov. 3 Penn State-Purdue game, Pamon's crew penalized Purdue for personal fouls four times in the first half. The penalties cost the Boilermakers 15 yards apiece and prompted Tiller to hold his nose with two fingers and gesture at the officiating crew. But the most obvious blunder was yet to come.
It took place with 2:40 left to play, when Purdue receiver Selwyn Lymon caught a pass and darted out of bounds, which should have stopped the game clock. But the clock continued to run, forcing Purdue to use a timeout.
Purdue kicked a field goal on the possession and pulled within a touchdown. But Purdue failed to recover an on-side kick and only 18 seconds remained when the Boilermakers regained possession of the ball at their own 11-yard line. Without any timeouts left, Purdue drove to the Penn State 48-yard line before the game clock expired, sealing Penn State's 26-19 victory.
During the game, the officiating crew penalized Penn State 13 times for 88 yards and Purdue nine times for 82 yards.
Tiller filed a complaint with the Big Ten after the game, according to published reports.
A week after the Penn State-Purdue game, Pamon's crew worked the Illinois-Ohio State game and drew more criticism for a controversial decision that appeared to favor Illinois.
On Illinois' first scoring drive, despite what TV replays showed was a fumble recovered by Ohio State, the crew awarded possession to Illinois. The instant replay system that could have overturned the call was not used. The play would not have been reviewable if an official had blown the play dead before the fumble occurred. But neither the crew nor the Big Ten ever provided an explanation. Illinois won the game by seven points, the margin provided by that ensuing touchdown.
After the game, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said he heard there were technical difficulties with the video equipment in the replay official's booth.
"We had a couple of technical difficulties with what we were doing, too," he told reporters, downplaying the significance of the issue. "So you know, that didn't make the difference in the game."
During the game, the officials called only three penalties a week after calling 22 penalties in the Penn State-Purdue game. Ohio State was penalized twice for 9 yards and Illinois was penalized once for 10 yards.
During both games involving the controversial calls, probably few fans knew the crew members and their positions: umpire Pat Bayers, linesman Jack Teitz, line judge Robert Davis, back judge Dennis Morris, field judge Bobby Sagers, side judge Joe Duncan and Pamon, the referee and crew chief. Probably even fewer fans knew about Pamon's personal and financial troubles that have persisted.
Barry Mano, president and founder of the National Association of Sports Officials – a group whose membership includes about 16,500 officials and all NBA referees – said officials must be held to a high standard.
"We like to hold ourselves to the standard of judges,'' Mano said. "You go into a courtroom, you expect a certain background and behavior from a judge. We're not much different. …
"Character is the real issue.''
Michael Josephson, a former board member of the National Association of Sports Officials and ethicist who consults in fields ranging from government to sports, said casino gambling and virtually all other forms of gambling should prohibit someone from officiating. In the aftermath of the NBA scandal, he said, sports leagues should require financial disclosure from their officials.
The disclosure should address bankruptcy, financial problems and gambling, Josephson said.
"It is the responsibility of the leagues to safeguard the integrity of the sports,'' he said. "Of course, it's their responsibility. And now that they're on notice, they need to develop protocols. They can't throw up their hands and say, 'Geez, how am I supposed to know?' "