Surgeon feels pain of arena team debacle
TAMPA - Robert Nucci, a prominent figure in the personal injury industry, had big dreams when he bought the Tampa Bay Storm football team in 2007. But the purchase didn't lead to championships. Instead, it created a tempest of litigation and led to his bankruptcy. Nucci claims a Texas businessman misled him about the Arena Football League's financial situation, according to his lawsuit. The whole league folded - though, it has since re-emerged - and Nucci lost millions. Meantime, he's facing a $3.5 million judgment against him also tied to his failed Storm investment. Nucci filed for individual bankruptcy on Sept. 2, as opposed to business bankruptcy. But, creditors could still try to go after his medical practice, Nucci Spine & Orthopedic Institute. Some chiropractors and lawyers involved in personal injury are watching his bankruptcy closely.Nucci is an orthopedic surgeon who primarily treats auto accident victims. He gets much of his money when those patients sue the at-fault drivers, receiving some of the lawsuits' proceeds, according to documents filed in his 2006 divorce case. He knew almost nothing about arena football before buying the Storm. He only got interested after meeting the Storm's then-owner, Peter "Woody" Kern of Pilot Point, Texas, he says in his lawsuit. The Arena Football League was strong and ready to expand to new cities, Kern allegedly told him. Kern failed to tell him the league had operating losses of $24 million that year, Nucci's lawsuit claims. In fact, the Arena Football League was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, staying afloat only by selling new team franchises to new investors, the suit charges. The surgeon eventually put down $9.6 million for 51 percent of the team in November 2007, and he promised to pay $9.2 million more for the rest. Interest 'was wiped out' He'd owned the Storm for just one season when the league shut down and filed for bankruptcy protection. Eventually, a group of league insiders bought the league out of bankruptcy for about $6 million and started it up again, which is why the Storm is still playing. However, Nucci lost his equity in the team through the bankruptcy process. "Nucci's interest in the Storm was wiped out," his lawsuit says. He has sued Kern and Storm coach Tim Marcum, who Nucci claims also misled him, in circuit court in Hillsborough County. An attorney for Kern and Marcum said he couldn't comment because of arena league rules. Even as he's trying to recoup his investment, four local businessmen are trying to collect millions from Nucci. Thomas Begley, Jay Mize, Doug Graber and Eric Snow claim they were thinking about buying the Storm in 2006 and hoped to bring in Nucci as a partner. Nucci originally was interested, but eventually broke off from the men and began negotiating to buy the team alone, the men say in an arbitration case. That violated an agreement Nucci had signed to not independently try to buy the team. "They took Nucci to a game, and within days he was contacting a broker and he was off to the races to buy it for himself," said Michael Keane, the men's lawyer. An arbitrator awarded the men more than $3.5 million, and a circuit court judge upheld the judgment. Nucci is appealing the case, arguing that the size of the judgment was "grossly disproportionate" to what the men could've expected. All told, Nucci could be out at least $13 million because of the Storm, factoring in his failed investment in the team and the judgment. Other woes His Chapter 11 bankruptcy case also lists woes unrelated to arena football. Nucci pays his ex-wife $31,645 a month as part of his divorce settlement. He owes Regions Bank about $8 million from personal loans and loans to his medical practice, said John Anthony, the bank's attorney in the bankruptcy case. Harley Riedel, Nucci's bankruptcy attorney, said Nucci was current in paying all of his bills before filing for bankruptcy. But his creditors, including Regions Bank, could declare him in default and that could affect Nucci Spine & Orthopedic Institute and an outpatient facility he owns, Citrus Park Surgery Center. "Hopefully, it doesn't happen. At least now it doesn't have to happen," Riedel said.
Reporter Michael Sasso can be reached at (813) 259-7865.