Frangipani Suing HBO Over Autograph Story

Donald Frangipani says business ain’t what it used to be.

A New York man accused of authenticating numerous fake autographs has filed a $5 million defamation lawsuit against HBO and its Real Sports program.

Donald Frangipani, a forensic handwriting examiner who built a business authenticating celebrity and sports autographs and other memorabilia, filed the suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Defendants include HBO, Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel, reporter Armen Keteylan and several of the show’s producers who worked on a story about autograph authentication in which Frangipani signed off on a number of deliberately forged autographs.

“I had an excellent reputation, and all of a sudden I lost it all,” Frangipani said.

The publicity surrounding the Operation Bullpen case dealt a major blow to Frangipani’s business.

Autographed items with Frangipani-issued certificates of authenticity are not even allowed to be sold on eBay. The site’s policy on autographs states that “hundreds of COAs originally issued by Donald Frangipani may have been fraudulently copied or altered. Until further notice, eBay will not permit any use of or reference to certificates of authenticity issued by Donald Frangipani.”

“Forger’s Paradise” was a Real Sports investigative report about the growing problem of fake sports memorabiia sold to the public via the internet. Aired in January 2006, the story named Frangipani as the source who issued certificates of authenticity for the group convicted in Operation Bullpen, an FBI investigation that resulted in several arrests and the confiscation of thousands of pieces of sports memorabilia with non-genuine signatures.

The HBO show incorrectly reported that Frangipani signed off on “thousands” of fakes for the ring, according to the complaint. Instead, Frangipani’s lawsuit states he looked at fewer than 500 items and rejected about 60.

The suit states that the defendants named in the suit “were grossly irresponsible and acted with malice when they repeated these statements without confirming the truthfulness of them, and led the viewer to such false and defamatory conclusions.”

The suit also claims the Real Sports story relied on accusations by autograph dealer Shelly Jaffe, who had pleaded guilty to taking part in the forgery ring and who it says “is very hostile” to Frangipani.

The suit claims Jaffe, while working with HBO, sent some authentic items to Frangipani so that legitimate COAs could be forged as well. It claims Frangipani declined to authenticate 50 to 60 items of more than 400 sent by Jaffe and that Frangipani did not learn that his COAs were being forged until it was revealed by Operation Bullpen.

Since his arrest, Jaffe has worked with HBO, law enforcement and other outlets in an attempt to stop fake autographs from being sold to unsuspecting buyers.

The suit claims the HBO segment was deliberately edited “to mislead viewers into believing that Frangipani approved items without really examining them.”

Frangipani is seeking a jury trial and damages of at least $5 million plus punitive damages and attorney fees.

Update:  The lawsuit was dismissed in March of 2010.