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Stephen Brunt

NHL digs into Balsillie's affairs Add to ...

For an outfit that in the recent past has left plenty of stones unturned when it comes to vetting owners - see one William (Boots) del Biaggio - the NHL appears exceptionally determined in its efforts to delve into the character and business practices of Jim Balsillie.

When Balsillie formally applied to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, he like any other prospective buyer gave the NHL permission to perform "due diligence" - though he had already been approved unanimously by the league's board of governors when he attempted to acquire the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006.

To that end, the league has retained Kroll Inc., which bills itself as the "world's largest investigative agency." Kroll, according to its own literature, "provides a broad range of investigative, intelligence, financial, security and technology services to help clients reduce risks, solve problems, and capitalize on opportunities."

Originally specialists in pursuing white-collar crooks, the company takes partial credit for busting the likes of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and former Haitian strongman Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier among others.

According to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, this kind of investigation is the league's standard practice, and has been applied with all prospective owners, including del Biaggio (though if that's the case, the league might want to ask for its money back, since Boots - who was approved as a minority owner of the Nashville Predators in 2007 and subsequently declared bankruptcy - is now facing six years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud charges).

Still, when recently retired Research In Motion vice-president Peter Broughall received a call from one of Kroll's investigators this week, he felt that the line of questioning didn't jibe with what he considered normal corporate protocol.

"If this is due diligence, I found it surprising that the line of questioning was not in line with trying to seek accurate positive information as well as negative," Broughall says.

The investigator, who told Broughall that he represented the NHL, said he had been given his name by another former RIM employee. "I was suspicious going in that this was not something sanctioned by Jim," Broughall acknowledges.

Following an initial series of questions establishing how long he had worked for the company and in which capacity, the investigator zeroed in on two areas of obvious interest.

One was Balsillie's (along with RIM co-chief executive officer Mike Lazaridis and other RIM executives and directors) brush with securities regulators in the United States and Canada over backdated stock options. Balsillie and company officials agreed to pay more than $70-million to settle the allegations last February, and he also stepped down from the company's board for one year. (In one of its court filings in Phoenix, the NHL suggested Balsillie had "trivialized the significance of the allegations in the then-ongoing investigation into his activities" when he applied to the league to become the owner of the Penguins.)

The other was an open question regarding Balsillie's personal and professional conduct - anything that he might have said or might have done, in business or otherwise, that would raise an eyebrow or cause concern.

All told, the interview didn't last very long, Broughall says.

"I could tell by my answers that he wasn't satisfied," he said. "I wasn't giving him the information that he was hoping to get from me and he probably ended it early … He realized he wasn't going to get any dirt out of me because I didn't have any dirt to offer."

That said, we all have our dirt and our skeletons, and those who run companies all have their angry, disgruntled former employees. In what are clearly desperate times for the NHL hierarchy, trying to head off Balsillie as he pursues his plan to buy the Coyotes out of bankruptcy and move them to Hamilton, apparently all's fair.

It is worth pointing out that Del Biaggio wasn't the only NHL owner to leave the league in handcuffs. Hockey leads all of professional sports in that regard.

But those were good guys who played by the ever-shifting rules, who didn't go to war with the commissioner.

This time, with some expert professional help, they seem more motivated to get their man.

 

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