In the years before he represented Donald Trump on charges that the former president conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, John Lauro would say that his most successful cases were the ones that didn’t get a lot of attention.
Whether it was a Wall Street businessman accused of working with the mafia or a diner who didn’t pay a $46 bill because he was unhappy with the amount of seafood on his pasta, the Florida attorney’s goal was to work quietly to get his clients “in and out as quickly as possible without any publicity,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2007.
But when Lauro represented Tim Donaghy — the disgraced NBA referee who admitted to betting on games he officiated and taking payoffs from bookies — the high-profile case marked a departure from the attorney’s quick-and-quiet approach. He became more publicly combative against the NBA and prosecutors who accused him of overstating his claims in defense of Donaghy.
Donaghy, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his role in the gambling scandal in 2008, told The Washington Post on Friday that he believed Trump had made the right decision by hiring Lauro, saying the lawyer helped save his life.
“Mr. Trump is in great hands having John on his side, because he’s going to fight tirelessly on his behalf,” said Donaghy, 56. “I 100 percent think that as long as John has the law on his side, there is going to be a way for him to figure out how he can help former president Trump and get him in the position he needs and wants to be.”
Trump, the leading Republican contender in the 2024 presidential race, pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, appearing in the federal courthouse blocks away from where his angry supporters had stormed the Capitol in an effort to keep him in power on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump, who later described the proceedings as “a very sad day for America,” has been charged with conspiring to block Congress from confirming Joe Biden’s election, and successfully obstructing the vote confirmation by directing his supporters to the Capitol. He is also accused of scheming to disrupt the election process and deprive Americans of their right to have their votes counted.
Lauro, who was brought onto Trump’s legal team in mid-July, told the court that he expected the case would involve a massive amount of evidence that defense attorneys have to look through “in order to represent Mr. Trump and the American people.” Lauro said it was “somewhat absurd” for prosecutors to suggest they might be able to proceed to trial in a 70-day time span under the Speedy Trial Act.
“All we would ask for is the opportunity to fairly defend our client,” Lauro said. “In order to do that, we’re going to need a little time.” Toward the end of the hearing, Magistrate Judge Moxila A. Upadhyaya told the court, “I can guarantee everybody that there will be a fair process and a fair trial in this case.”
Lauro did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.
Long before he appeared in Washington on Thursday, Lauro had made his name as one of Tampa’s most decorated defense lawyers. He worked a wide range of cases that led to acquittals for his clients, including in 2004 for Dewayne Allen Levesque, the manager of the Pink Pony gentlemen’s club who faced charges of racketeering, conspiracy, and aiding and abetting prostitution. There was also the successful defense in 2006 of Ralph Paul, a Florida man who was charged with defrauding Angellino’s Italian Restaurant after he left without paying a $46 tab because the amount of seafood on his shrimp and scallop verdura was inadequate, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Lauro was watching a New York Yankees game when he got a call from Donaghy asking him to meet at a restaurant in Sarasota, Fla., the attorney recalled in “Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul,” a 2022 Netflix documentary. Donaghy, who said he had been recommended by a friend to call Lauro, had resigned from the NBA in July 2007 during an FBI investigation over allegations that he bet on games he officiated and also made calls that affected the point spreads of those contests.
“I could tell he was confident and intelligent, and someone who I knew was going to help me in any way he could,” Donaghy said.
Lauro made it clear he wanted to help, but Donaghy had to be forthright and let the attorney know everything that happened — without surprises.
“He said, ‘Be as truthful with me as you need to be, because I need to know the truth in order to help you,’” Donaghy said. “He felt like I was being treated unfairly.”
Added Lauro in the Netflix documentary: “My strategy always coming into a case, instinctually, is to fight. I don’t like cooperating. I like fighting. … The worst thing you could do in Tim’s situation is cooperate and not tell the whole truth, because you get caught in one lie, this is over.”
After Donaghy pleaded guilty to two federal charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting wagering information through interstate commerce in August 2007, Lauro argued for probation instead of prison for sentencing, saying his client was essentially homeless and sleeping on a friend’s couch. The attorney also accused the NBA of seeking to financially “destroy” Donaghy, who had been an official for 13 seasons.
But Lauro faced criticism from prosecutors for having “repeatedly overstated and at times flat out exaggerated the value of Mr. Donaghy’s cooperation,” according to the New York Daily News. U.S. District Judge Carol Amon, who oversaw the sentencing, said Lauro’s claim that prosecutors had colluded with the NBA to portray Donaghy as a lone rogue referee was “completely baseless,” the Daily News reported at the time.
In July 2008, Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He publicly apologized to the court for bringing “shame on myself, my family and the profession.” Knowing that Donaghy faced up to 33 months in prison, Lauro said he was “thrilled” with the outcome, calling it “fair and reasonable and a victory for the truth.”
Donaghy was released from prison after 11 months, and served the rest of his sentence at a halfway house near Tampa to help treat his gambling addiction. (He was later arrested for aggravated assault in 2017.)
“I realized it could have been a lot worse,” Donaghy told The Post. “I was very happy with the job that John did. I did the crime and I had to do the time. I’m very fortunate I was able to be associated with him and got out of the situation the way that I did.”
Donaghy, who is now a landlord for Florida rental properties, said he was not surprised when Lauro was brought on to represent Trump in the latest indictment against the former president.
“He hired the right guy,” Donaghy said. “John is going to help Mr. Trump.”
Tom Jackman, Spencer S. Hsu, Salvador Rizzo, Rachel Weiner and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.