Why didn't Saints cut ties with sketchy Ornstein?

by | Special to CBSSports.com

METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton might want to call his book publisher right about now.

I guess it's cool to devote an entire chapter and several other mentions in Payton's book to Mike Ornstein since he only had one felony on his rap sheet at the time. And it happened more than a decade earlier so it's water under the bridge.

Inside his book, Home Team, Payton lavished praise upon Ornstein for helping the Saints beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. According to the book, Orny, as most around the league know him, strategically placed Saints billboards throughout Miami for the Colts to see, made sure the families and friends of players received better swag than the Colts and took care of other tasks.

But what happens when the same person who's been a fixture around the Saints organization for more than four years and was so important to Payton and the Saints is busted for criminal activity that spans nearly a decade?

It's called REWRITE!

The Sports Business Journal broke the story that Ornstein had pleaded guilty in June to federal charges in a case involving allegations that he conspired with others to sell Super Bowl tickets he bought from people who, "through the course of their employment," had obtained the tickets at face value and sell them for a profit. He had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, money laundering and one count of mail fraud.

Also according to a bill of information, Ornstein obtained false certificates of authenticity, representing non-game-worn NFL jerseys as game-worn. Ornstein and others then had the jerseys cut into pieces and affixed to trading cards, which were then sold purporting to contain pieces of NFL game-worn jerseys.

The feds proved the operation occurred from October 1998 and March 2006. The maximum penalty for the first count is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for the second count is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Ornstein will be sentenced on Jan. 24.

And what was Ornstein federally convicted of in 1995? You guessed it. Mail fraud.

"We always cooperate with law enforcement," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement to CBSSports.com about the latest guilty pleas. "Any questions about this matter should be directed to the prosecutors that are handling the case in the U.S. Attorney's office in Cleveland."

So my question is why were Payton and the Saints in bed with this guy? Everything about this guy reeks of orange jumpsuit.

Aiello wouldn't provide a comment on the relationship between Ornstein and the Saints, but it's known that after talking to various sources that the league was never happy about the tight relationship between Ornstein and the Saints.

Ornstein was known as "a guy who could get things done" for the Saints since he began lurking around the locker room in the 2006 season when he served as Reggie Bush's marketing agent. Yep, the same marketing agent that popped up throughout the NCAA investigation involving Bush and illegal benefits. He's the agent that won the right to market Bush.

Ornstein started making millions of dollars off Bush (that we know of) right around the time the investigation by the feds ended. The relationship between Bush and Ornstein ended midway through the 2007 season, but Ornstein never left. He continued to be a presence in the Saints locker room, specifically on game days.

Drew Brees said Wednesday that he's known Ornstein since entering the league in 2001.

"Guys see Mike and he's a friend to a lot of guys," Brees said.

Payton certainly befriended Ornstein.

Ornstein is the marketing guru behind Payton's book besides all of the numerous tasks he did for Payton and the Saints organization. He even asked a question during the press conference promoting the book as if he were a member of the media. Payton laughed and then answered it.

The book press conference was on the same day (June 16) that Bush talked to the media for the first time about the devastating penalties the NCAA levied on USC because of Bush's transgressions.

Ornstein was heavily involved in that press conference as well, as noted in an earlier column on CBSSports.com. Ornstein meandered around reporters poking his ear in the huddle to listen to every word Bush had to say. He even tried to push a member of the Saints public relations staff to step in and end the press conference.

All of this occurred during the same month of Ornstein's guilty pleas.

So Ornstein peddled Payton's book, scheduling several talk show appearances and book signings with the cloud of possible jail time hovering over his head.

But Ornstein was still around the team long after the guilty pleas. He was involved with team activities as recent as Monday when he set up a charity event in the team's indoor facility. Ornstein often huddled with Payton and others after practice at midfield throughout training camp and basically had carte blanche of the place. He's still a constant at Saints games in the press box, on the field and in the locker room during postgame activities.

So did Payton knowingly keep ties with Ornstein despite the sports marketing agent's second run in with possible jail time?

Payton said he didn't find out until Tuesday in four separate questions asked by CBSSports.com at his Wednesday press conference, even though the question of when he found out was only asked once:

CBSSports.com: Considering your connection to Mike Ornstein, what is your reaction to the reports that came out yesterday?

Payton: Just like anyone else, that's the first we heard of it. It's something that dates back further than 10 years ago. Really just that [as his reaction]. Not knowing any details and as far back as it went. That's really about it.

CBSSports.com: Does it surprise you to see all this considering how close you worked with the guy?

Payton: He's having to work through that. Obviously it's something that's very serious and I'm sure he'll handle. In the meantime, it really doesn't affect us here. It was news to us as well.

CBSSports.com: So you just found out yesterday?

Payton: Yes, just when you guys found out.

Another reporter: Is he here with you? Will he be with you in any capacity?

Payton: He's not here. He's got a job in L.A. You guys have read the book and heard what we said about him and what I said about him in the book. So there's no capacity he's been in. He's just as staunch of a supporter of us as anyone. That's really his capacity. And certainly the relationships he's had with a number of players and people here stemming back to Reggie Bush.

CBSSports.com: Do you step back away from the situation?

Payton: No. Listen, this is something he's working through. Really it's something you'd have to visit with him on or call him on and research. I know it goes back to '96. Outside of that, we're finding out just like you guys.

Brees was asked about the Ornstein situation and told a different story than what Payton said 15 minutes earlier, inferring that the Saints have known much longer than Tuesday's report.

"I think what came out was something that I think was going on now for a while, so it's not like it caught any of us by surprise as far as what was out there," Brees said.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune also reported that the Saints knew about the Ornstein guilty plea before Tuesday's report.

So Payton doesn't want to back away from a guy who's now been convicted of multiple felonies, a guy who the NFL obviously is rightfully after and a guy who the NFL wants you to have no part of?

Not smart in the least.

The Saints' off-the-field track record hasn't been the cleanest since winning the Super Bowl, most specifically the Vicodin lawsuit. And now Payton and the Saints players are answering for this criminal who's not, nor was he ever, an employee of the team.

My question is why were the Saints, in particular Payton, foolish enough to associate with Ornstein from the start? And why didn't the Saints end their relationship with Ornstein after Brees made it clear that the team had known about the legal troubles before Tuesday?

The NFL is still probably wondering the same thing.


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