Former Islanders owner John Spano.

Former Islanders owner John Spano. Credit: Newsday file photo

The man who conned the National Hockey League into thinking he was a wealthy entrepreneur well-qualified to buy one of the league's most storied franchises has been convicted on fraud-related charges in Ohio

John Spano Jr. pleaded guilty Monday to 16 counts of forgery for what authorities say was a scam that saw him collect nearly $70,000 in sales commissions on fraudulent accounts that he created. The 50-year-old Spano faces as many as 16 years in prison when sentenced in a Lake County courtroom next month. He remains free on bond.

His attorney did not return telephone messages Tuesday. Spano lives with his parents in Grand River, a village about 30 miles east of Cleveland.

Spano became infamous after he agreed to purchase the New York Islanders in 1996 for $165 million. The NHL vetted Spano, who presented himself as a Texas businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and approved the sale. He convinced banks to lend him $80 million for the purchase. But months after being hailed as a hero by Islander fans, his con was revealed when he failed to pay a relatively modest down payment of $5 million.

The FBI launched an investigation and Spano pleaded guilty to fraud and theft charges in federal court in New York. He was sentenced to nearly six years in prison and was ordered to pay $11.9 million in restitution to the Islanders and victims of other scams, including $1.25 million to hockey great Mario Lemieux.

Spano's infamy was revived in 2013 with the release of a documentary about his aborted purchase of the Islanders titled "Big Shot." The film aired on the ESPN series "30 for 30."

After prison, Spano returned to Ohio, where he spent his teenage years and graduated from high school. He started a finance company that fraudulently collected fees for services never delivered. Another investigation was launched and he again pleaded guilty in federal court. Along with a sentence of just over four years, he was ordered to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution.

Back in Ohio after that second prison stint, Spano was hired as a driver for a company that provides laundry services to medical facilities, police said. He was promoted to salesman, which is when he began creating the fake accounts for which he was paid commissions. Police said he ran the operation from an office he set up inside a self-storage unit.

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