Eli Manning
Eli Manning (Craig Lassig/Newscom)

A civil suit filed in New Jersey state court accuses New York Giants insiders of passing off bogus collectibles and of framing a sports memorabilia dealer who ended up ensnared in a federal investigation.

Plaintiff Eric Inselberg, a former Giants business associate, alleges that quarterback Eli Manning and other players directed locker room staff to doctor helmets and jerseys to make them appear as though they’d been worn in games, and then moved them to dealers for sale to unwitting collectors.

Inselberg for years bought legitimate jerseys and other items from team equipment managers Ed Wagner Jr., Joseph Skiba and Edward Skiba, Joseph’s brother, according to the complaint and to lawyers involved in the matter.

Barry Barone of Park Cleaners in Rutherford, who launders and tailors uniforms for the Giants and other pro sports teams, also allegedly was involved in the transactions.

Some items were actually worn in games, while others were issued to the team but never worn. Inselberg in turn resold the items through his sports memorabilia businesses. He claims the transactions occurred largely with knowledge of top team officials, who had no policy for or against distributing equipment.

In 2006, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago and the FBI launched a large-scale investigation into sports memorabilia fraud, particularly to find whether dealers were falsely marketing pro football gear as game-worn.

Investigators in 2010 and 2011 questioned Wagner, the Skibas and Barone about Inselberg. They allegedly attempted to distance themselves from him, first by denying the sales altogether, and then by understating the number of jerseys they’d sold him—claiming dozens of sales per year rather than the hundreds that actually occurred, the suit claims. “Those lies created a false discrepancy” that made it appear Inselberg dealt many more supposedly game-worn items to collectors than he’d obtained from the team, the suit claims.

Much of the alleged deception was at the behest of team general counsel William Heller, who prepared the witnesses, including Barone, and “was concerned about the potential fall-out should Giants employees and vendors be implicated in misconduct,” the suit claims.

Heller allegedly threatened employees’ jobs, coached Barone and dissuaded employees from hiring counsel, thus creating a conflict of interest when team and individual interests diverged.

Heller also hired his old firm, Newark’s McCarter & English, to conduct an internal investigation, the results of which were reported to team co-owner and president John Mara.

Inselberg charges that the witnesses then perjured themselves before a federal grand jury to insulate the organization.

He says further that part of the reason for the lies was that Giants insiders themselves were responsible for distributing fraudulent memorabilia. “Chief among those players is the team’s starting quarterback, Defendant Eli Manning, who has on several occasions directed [Joseph] Skiba to take non-game-worn helmets and make them appear to have been worn so that Manning could pass them off,” he says in the suit.

Those fakes allegedly were given to Steiner Sports, to whom Manning, by contract, provides all his game-worn items. Steiner, unaware of the fraud, has received complaints from collectors who later discover their purchases don’t match the items shown in corresponding game photos, the suit alleges.

Top team officials allegedly have been aware of this practice.

Inselberg says that he obtained the helmet Manning wore during Super Bowl XLII but that Joseph Skiba later doctored another helmet to make it look game-worn—which ended up on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Manning also allegedly gave Steiner two helmets he supposedly wore during the 2011 season, one of them during Super Bowl XLVI. Inselberg bought one for $11,500, while the latter sold to a collector for $46,000. Those, too, allegedly were fake.

Inselberg says he became aware of these frauds in recent years and was careful to avoid these goods by first checking with Joseph Skiba before buying.

In October 2011, Inselberg was indicted on two counts of mail fraud. Five other dealers were charged, too.

Inselberg was represented by Michael Critchley and Edmund DeNoia of Critchley, Kinum & Vazquez, who provided evidence to prosecutors that refuted what witnesses had told the FBI and the grand jury.

In May 2013, an Illinois federal judge dismissed the case at the prosecutor’s request. Still, the ordeal cost Inselberg millions in lost business, $700,000 in legal defense fees and various emotional injuries, he alleges.

Inselberg also alleges the Giants cheated him by failing to pay him in connection with a sponsorship deal with JPMorgan Chase that he brokered, and he claims a wireless marketing capability that he patented was misappropriated by the team.

The suit, filed Wednesday in Bergen County Superior Court, asserts violations of the New Jersey racketeering statute and 15 common-law counts.

Named as defendants are the Giants, Mara, Manning, the Skibas, Wagner, Heller, Barone, Park Cleaners and Giants CFO Christine Procops.

Inselberg’s lawyers, Red Bank solo Michael Kasanoff and Brian Brook of Clinton Brook & Peed in New York, said in a statement that Inselberg “is simply trying to hold those individuals accountable for their actions and the harm that it has caused to him in being falsely accused[.]…The New York Giants had every opportunity to make amends with Mr. Inselberg, but decided not to do so.”

McCarter partner William O’Shaughnessy, the organization’s counsel, declined comment. A Giants spokesman told The Record of Hackensack that the suit is “completely without any merit whatsoever and we will defend it vigorously.”

Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in New York represents Manning. A call to the firm was not returned.