NEW YORK (AP) — NBA players put union chief Billy Hunter on an indefinite leave Friday, two weeks after a report they commissioned questioned Hunter's leadership and criticized him for bad decisions and questionable business practices.
The union is forming an interim executive committee and an advisory committee, the group's president, Derek Fisher, said in a statement released Friday. An outside attorney is also being hired as players begin moving forward, likely without the man who has guided them since 1996.
Hunter's attorney responded that the actions weren't allowable under NBPA rules, setting up the possibility of a Hunter fight to keep to his job.
Fisher pushed for the outside review of Hunter and the union. That examination by a New York law firm found no illegal use of funds but cited Hunter for a number of poor choices and recommended players discuss whether he should remain in charge during their All-Star weekend meetings.
"Because of the unusual circumstances at the union, a result of mismanagement extensively documented by the Paul, Weiss report, the committees have decided to take immediate actions that allow them to assess the situation fully and build a stronger, more effective organization that better represents their membership," the statement released through Fisher's publicist said.
Released Jan. 17 after an eight-month review, the report found that Hunter was aware his $3 million per year contract was never properly approved. It also criticized his hiring of family members and friends, and said there were other conflicts of interests he should have avoided.
Fisher's statement said that because of the ongoing investigations being conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. attorney's office, the players wanted the executive committee to take steps to protect them.
"Unfortunately, it appears that union management has lost sight of the NBPA's only task, to serve the best interests of their membership. This is the reason I called for a review almost a year ago," Fisher said. "The findings of that review confirm this unfortunate truth and we must now move forward as players. Immediate change is necessary and I, along with the committee members, are committed to driving the process as difficult as it may be."
Union attorney Ron Klempner will be the acting executive director "until further decisions can be made."
The union also said its All-Star weekend meetings in Houston may be revised so all players can attend without conflict.
Hunter's attorney, Thomas Ashley, said his client had been treated unfairly and had already taken steps to improve the union.
"I am deeply troubled by the lack of fundamental fairness shown my client by a group whose authority to take such action is highly questionable. The act of placing my client on administrative leave is not supported in either the constitution or bylaws of the NBPA," Ashley said. "Furthermore, Mr. Hunter was not given any opportunity to respond to the Paul, Weiss report prior to the time that a decision was made to place him on administrative leave."
Hunter and Fisher clashed during the lockout that lasted from July-December 2011. Agents were angry with Hunter's strategies during this one and the 1998 work stoppage, though he has remained popular and respected by many players.
The review gave them reason to consider his future. It accuses Hunter of spending improperly on travel and gifts, questions his expense reports and unused vacation time pay, saying he "paid little attention to the appearance of impropriety."
Miami Heat forward Shane Battier said Wednesday the report was "all alarming," but added that it was already common knowledge to many players.
"To be honest with you, the buzz is that there was absolutely nothing in the report that was new news. Guys who have been around knew everything in the report was happening for the last eight years," Battier said. "So that's sort of the irony. There was a big hub-bub about it nationwide, but players were like, 'Yeah, I heard that. Doesn't surprise me, it's accurate.'"
Hunter, 70, has said he looks forward to continuing in his position and recently made changes based on the review's findings such as instituting an anti-nepotism policy. He fired his daughter, Robyn, announced daughter-in-law Megan Inaba would leave after the All-Star game, and said the union would no longer use a financial institution that employs his son.
Hunter received a contract extension in 2010 to run through at least through 2015, yet the review said the players would have "powerful arguments" if an attempt to remove him led to litigation. It said Hunter was aware by at least November 2011 that the executive committee and player representatives had not approved the deal according to union bylaws.
"We believe his contract is valid and we will soon offer a comprehensive rebuttal and explanation with respect to the allegations mentioned in the letter and report," Ashley said.
Fisher is not currently on an NBA team, having asked the Dallas Mavericks for his release earlier this season. The statement said he will be on site at the NBPA office in New York to assist during the transition.
"We ask for the cooperation, trust and patience of the players, their representatives and some of our hard-working NBPA staff as we navigate through this situation," he said. "But rest assured that our goal is to do what is right for the players and we will emerge stronger than before."
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- Derek Fisher