Investment scandal rocks Israeli basketball

JERUSALEM — When the popular former manager of Israel’s most famous basketball team killed himself last week, it seemed like a sad tale of a heartbroken man who couldn’t adjust to life after sports. Now it appears there’s more to the story.

Authorities suspect Moni Fanan was running a multimillion dollar investment scheme for some of Israel’s top sports figures, and that he was deep in debt. The scandal has overshadowed the opening of Israel’s basketball season this week and tarnished Maccabi Tel Aviv, the most successful team in the country’s history.

Huge losses, estimated at more than $20 million, are now believed to have driven Fanan to hang himself in his Tel Aviv apartment last week.

Top players are believed to have lost millions of dollars in shady investments, tax authorities have raided Maccabi’s offices, and there are even suspicions that referees in charge of Maccabi games had invested with Fanan.

Maccabi spokesman Nitzan Ferraro denied any wrongdoing inside the club and said team officials were cooperating with the authorities. “We have nothing to hide,” he said.

Maccabi has dominated Israeli basketball for decades, winning 38 of the past 40 league titles. Its budget dwarfs that of all its competitors, and it has grown into a European powerhouse. Last week, Maccabi toured the U.S. for a series of exhibition games against NBA teams.

For years, Fanan was the face of Maccabi to the Israeli public, holding a position that ranged from bench coach to logistics manager to chief troubleshooter for his players.

During his 16-year tenure, the team won 15 league titles and three European championships. His son, Regev, was a backup for five years.

Fanan was particularly popular with the team’s dozens of foreign players, some of whom went on to play in the NBA. But last year, he was forced to step down and give up his small stake in Maccabi, after a falling out with other team executives.

Since Fanan’s death, Israeli newspapers have reported that he ran a private banking network in which he invested large sums of money for his players, opposing coaches and league referees in return for promises of double-digit returns.

The Israeli media have given the story nonstop coverage, saying Fanan’s murky financial dealings were well known among team officials. Most of the reports have cited players speaking anonymously, since many were invested with Fanan and could be charged with tax evasion for their earnings.

One former player, Doron Jamchi, broke the wall of silence over the weekend when he told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that “everyone on the team knew.”

Israeli tax authorities this week raided Maccabi’s main office, confiscating boxes of documents. The team’s former coach, Tzvika Sherf, and two ex-stars, Nadav Henefeld and Oded Katash, have been questioned. Tax Authority spokeswoman Idit Lev-Zerehia confirmed the agency is looking into possible tax evasion and money laundering.

The case has even found its way into parliament. Opposition lawmaker Yoel Hasson said he is working on creating a parliamentary committee to investigate allegations that referees had invested with Fanan — which he said would undermine the integrity of sports in Israel.

“There is concern that financial interests have surpassed sporting interests,” he said. “The reports cast a doubt over the purity of the officiating, the purity of the game, the purity of sport.”

The league, concerned about the suspicions, has asked its referees to sign an affidavit saying they had not invested with Fanan and were not connected to the scandal.

Israeli newspapers have linked Fanan to Nick Levene, a Jewish derivatives trader in Britain who declared bankruptcy earlier this month and whose assets have been frozen by the High Court, according to British insolvency records.

Britain’s Serious Fraud Office confirmed it has opened a criminal investigation against Levene, the former vice chairman of the Leyton Orient Football Club, who allegedly owes investors up to 200 million pounds, or about $328 million.

Fanan allegedly invested hefty sums with Levene. When Levene went bust, Fanan found himself in a similar situation, leaving some investors penniless, according to Israeli media reports. In an interview with the “Israel Hayom” newspaper from a secret location in England, Levene denied investing money for Fanan but confirmed that he did so for two other Israeli basketball team owners.

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