RICHMOND, Va. - Saying he never intended to violate the law and the values he learned from his parents, former basketball star Ralph Sampson pleaded guilty Thursday to mail fraud and was sentenced to two months in jail.
As part of a plea agreement, federal prosecutors dropped charges that Sampson lied about his finances to obtain free legal representation in a child support case. He faced a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if convicted on each of those three counts.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer approved the deal after hearing directly from Sampson, who said his troubles prompted him to “reflect back on the values my father and mother taught me” while growing up in Harrisonburg.
Sampson, a three-time national player of the year at Virginia who was drafted No. 1 overall by the NBA’s Houston Rockets in 1983, is now a convicted felon.
“My journey has not always been a smooth one,” Sampson told Spencer. “...I’ve made some mistakes in my life. My actions have not been because I’ve had the intention to do anything wrong.”
Sampson’s attorney, James C. Roberts, said his client failed to meet his child-support obligations only after an injury ended his NBA career. Sampson received about $539,000 in 1999 and nearly $135,000 in 2000, the last year of his contract with the Sacramento Kings, court records show.
“In short, when he was making money he was making payments,” said Roberts, who acknowledged that Sampson should have gone to court to seek a reduction in his obligations rather that simply quit sending checks.
Spencer, noting that he had been presiding over the child-support case since it began three years ago, agreed that Sampson deserved a break.
“I’ve not seen one thing that convinces me Mr. Sampson is a bad person, a terrible person,” Spencer said. “He was unable to pay, not unwilling to pay.”
Spencer granted Sampson’s request to delay the start of his incarceration until April 2 to accommodate his family, including a daughter who is starting college and two basketball-playing sons.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Flannery opposed the request, arguing that the government already had made substantial concessions by dropping three charges and offering only a short jail term. She said prosecutors approved the deal because Sampson agreed to promptly pay $300,000 in back child support for two children who have different mothers.
“It’s a real shame that it takes a criminal charge to make Mr. Sampson pay the child support he’s legally obligated to pay,” Flannery said.
Spencer said he had no qualms about delaying the start of Sampson’s term.
“It’s nothing we haven’t done for hundreds of others,” he said.
Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Sampson told reporters going to jail “won’t be easy,” but he’s eager to put his troubles behind him.
“We all have to suffer some anguishes in life,” Sampson said. “This is mine.”
The mail fraud count to which Sampson pleaded guilty related to his purchase of a $43,000 sport utility through his corporation in the Atlanta area. The indictment alleged that Sampson sent documents regarding the SUV from Georgia to Virginia, where the vehicle was titled, for the purpose of defrauding a finance company.
Sampson, 46, lives in suburban Atlanta with his fiance and their 3-year-old daughter, who attended the hearing along with Sampson’s father.
PBT: The Spurs saw the NBA title slip through their fingers Tuesday night. Do they have it in them to rebound from their meltdown in time for Game 7?
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
Bosh: 'We'll see who hits first'
Heat forward Chris Bosh talks about what could be a very physical Game 6 stating, "Hit them in the mouth, throat and their eyes." Miami coach Erik Spoelstra says the opposing Spurs "attack you ... but we do the same thing."
Latest from ProBasketballTalk
Wednesday And-1 links: 76ers in no rush to hire a coach7 hr 21 min ago
PBT Extra: Previewing Heat/Spurs NBA Finals Game 79 hr 7 min ago
Get your NBA cheer on
Check out some of the dancers from the NBA.