The FBI has started a formal inquiry into reports that past and present agents in the Tampa, Fla., field office conducted personal favors for New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, according to a published report.
The New York Times reported in today's editions that one of the favors included gathering information on gambler Howard Spira.
The FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility decided last Friday that a full-scale inquiry was warranted, FBI spokesman Mike Kortan told the newspaper.
Unidentified investigators said last week that Steinbrenner, who also owns the American Ship Building Co. in Tampa, reciprocated for the information about Spira by inviting bureau officials to his personal box at Tampa Bay Buccaneer games and offering high-paying jobs to those who were especially helpful.
The retired agents said the background checks made for Steinbrenner were part of a long pattern of assistance orchestrated by Phillip McNiff, a former FBI agent who is now a vice president at American Ship Building.
McNiff, the special agent in charge of the Tampa office at the time, later became one of three FBI agents, including John Lawn, a former Drug Enforcement Agency chief, to go to work for Steinbrenner.
Spira was indicted on charges of extorting $40,000 from Steinbrenner for information to discredit then-Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield. Winfield now plays for the Angels.
Also Monday, one of Steinbrenner's lawyers, Robert E. Banker, accused baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent and his investigator, John Dowd, of making a deal with Spira for evidence against Steinbrenner.
Steinbrenner's association with and payment to Spira caused Vincent to force Steinbrenner to quit as general partner of the team by Aug. 20.
Banker said Vincent is trying to discredit the eight-count federal indictment against Spira, who is accused of threatening to harm and attempting to extort the owner.
Vincent and Spira's lawyer denied the accusations.
"They made a deal with Spira that in return for information damaging George, they would assist Spira in some way with regards to the criminal prosecution," Banker said in a telephone interview. "Or they simply don't want the Spira case tried because they don't want the public to hear what Spira has to say or what George has to say. I can't think of any other reason."