Up until Wednesday morning, Craig Carton’s job was to hector and belittle callers, loudly opine, and engage in ongoing squabbles with other New York media personalities and his fellow WFAN employees, all while slinging hot takes about the whatever large-font topic is rattling around both the New York and national sports world as co-host of the top-rated sports talk gab-fest Boomer & Carton, which airs weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m.
On Wednesday, he failed to show up for work, and his co-host, the former NFL quarterback and Long Island native Boomer Esiason, was in the dark, grumpily joking that his absence was due to a feigned illness and calling Carton “numb nuts.”
In reality, Carton, 48, had been arrested by the FBI at his home in Manhattan at 3:45 a.m., charged with committing wire and securities fraud and a conspiracy to commit wire and securities fraud, allegations that seem poised to rid the nation’s first and biggest sports-talk station of a key host at a tenuous moment in the station’s history.
According to a lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Carton and his two business partners roped in a total of $5.6 million from their investors, claiming that they had access to blocks of tickets for live events and concerts, setting up what investigators described as a “Ponzi-like scheme.”
They used falsified documents from promoters as proof, but were actually redirecting the funds they’d amassed to pay off the millions Carton owed in gambling debts to casinos and an additional $825,000 he owed to another unnamed individual, according to the suit.
In a statement, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Joon Kim, said. “Their schemes were allegedly propped up by phony contracts with two companies to purchase blocks of concert tickets, when in fact, Carton and Wright had no deals to purchase any tickets at all.”
“As alleged, behind all the talk, the [co-defendant Michael] Wright and Carson show was just a sham,” the statement continued, “designed to fleece investors out of millions ultimately to be spent on payments to casinos and to pay off other personal debt.”
Starting in September 2016 and continuing through January 2017, Carton, Wright, 41, who runs a strip club in New Jersey, and Joseph Meli, an event promoter who was previously charged after claiming he had access to bulk tickets to the musical Hamilton, and is listed in the criminal complaint as “Co-Conspirator 1” but is named in the SEC’s filing, began cobbling together a plan to “clean up” the gambling debts Carton had accrued, according to text messages and emails seized by investigators. An email sent by Carton said he was down “approx. $2.5 in outstanding debt that comes due over the next 30 days or so starting September 9.” [sic]
The trio began seeking out potential investors, one of whom is a partner in a hedge fund who was an apparent acquaintance of Carton’s. (All the allegedly injured parties go unnamed in both the Manhattan Federal Court complaint and the SEC lawsuit, but according to Sports Illustrated’s Jack Dickey, the hedge fund in question is Brigade Capital Management, which invested $2 million.) They created false documents purportedly from producers and venues which indicated that companies set up by Carton and Meli had purchased blocks of tickets for high-profile musicians and acts, including Adele, Justin Bieber, Metallica, Barbra Streisand, and Roger Waters, and were ready to be resold at a profit. Should they fail, Meli wrote, one option was to “Flee the country. Run to Costa Rica, change name, and start life over again — may not to be an option.”
For a brief moment, they hoped they would pull of the scam, and come out ahead. In a text message sent in October 2016, Carton wrote, “Guys. I’ve done it. One investor ready committed $10m liquid and $40m LOC [line of credit] with $50m if needed. I need some info. List of shows we can 100% prove access to tickets. How many when and how it’s returned and predicted success.”
But like any Ponzi scheme, it was only a matter of time before his investors began to question where their money was going, as hundreds of thousands that Carton promised would be spent on tickets instead were used to pay back casinos and a debt of $825,000 owed to an unnamed individual. Wright too diverted an additional $966,000 to pay off a debt he owed.
In the world of online ticketing, this is unheard of. Brian Michael Cooper, a partner in the sports, entertainment and media practice group at Lewis Brisbois told The Daily Beast that it wasn’t a question of Carton seizing on a marketplace and an industry that is booming of late, as opposed to being one that’s ripe for fraud. “I think Carton’s alleged scheme was less indicative of the state of security measures in the online ticket resale market, than it was the lure of a lucrative industry and high-profile events to potential investors,” he said by email
The Daily Beast also spoke with Yves Darbouze, a co-founder of Charged.fm, an online ticketing site dealing in both the primary and secondary market that was recently acquired by Vendini, another online ticketing company, where Darbouze currently works as a senior product manager. When told of Carton's alleged scheme, Darbouze was flabbergasted.
While Charged.fm had dealt with the occasional broker who wasn't able to convey tickets event as promised and even individuals who went through the complicated process of creating fake tickets, Darbouze said he’d never encountered a plan as far-fetched and ultimately doomed to fail as Carton's. I've never seen anything like this," he said. "I've worked with 1,600 brokers in my time at Charged.fm and I've never heard anyone go this far... this is audacious."
WFAN said Wednesday evening that it had suspended Carton, pending further investigation, and it’s hard to fathom a scenario in which he’ll be back on the air any time soon. His unexpected absence comes at a critical juncture for WFAN.
Mike Francesa—who along with his former partner, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, revolutionized sports talk radio and spawned thousands of imitators across the U.S.—is set to retire in December. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—a regular guest with Boomer & Carton—was floated as a possible replacement, and while he proved himself a reasonable if replacement-level talker during a few on-air trial runs, his brief stint behind the mic was best known for into a lengthy back-and-forth with a WFAN regular who called him a “fat ass.” Once Christie hung up on “Mike from Montclair,” the governor kvetched that the city was shot through with communists. (WFAN reportedly told Christie he was out of the running for the gig on August 20.)
Boomer & Carton has consistently been a winner for WFAN. This winter, they were the highest rated show in their time slot, clocking in with a 7.3 percent ratings share and ranking first among males aged 26-54. Carton himself admitted that he’d discussed a shift to Francesa’s afternoon slot with the WFAN brass, but that seems to be off the table, regardless of how the legal process plays out. Even though Francesa’s game has slipped as he prepares to exit and ESPN radio has been netting more and more listeners,, one unnamed radio executive speculated to the Daily News’s Bob Raissman that WFAN might be forced to come hat in hand to Francesa, begging him to delay his retirement and giving in to any contractual demands he might make. The absence of both, “could destroy the radio station,” in the short term, the executive said. “Carton was the main draw of the morning show. Francesa is Francesa.”
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1991, Carton hosted sports-talk radio shows in Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Denver. After a brief stint in New York on WNEW, he first gained prominence as one of “The Jersey Guys,” on WXNW in Trenton, where he caught flack for mocking minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and most notably, resorting to a squeaky, ostensibly “Asian” accent to ask why Edison residents would vote for a mayoral candidate named Jun Choi.
Carton’s shock-jock antics and retrograde instincts continued during his time at WFAN, where he and Esiason slotted in as replacements for New York radio legend Don Imus, who was fired in 2007 after he called the Rutgers Women’s Varsity Basketball team, “nappy-headed hos.” Carton lambasted then-New York Met Daniel Murphy for taking a paternity leave during the season; asked former tennis pro Jennifer Capriati a series of degrading, sexual questions during an interview; called the city of Houston a “dump” during Super Bowl Week; crossed the Brooklyn Bridge sans pants to settle a bet made on-air; insisted that female tennis players needed to maintain their attractiveness in order to have value as an athlete; carried water for President-Elect Trump after racists defiled a New York Giants running back’s home. And Carton also engaged in a series of running feuds with the likes of Keith Olbermann, Francesa, ESPN’s Michael Kay, the New York Mets general manager, Sandy Alderson, and more.
According to Carton, who WFAN pays a reported $250,000 per year, this is by design. In his autobiography, Loudmouth: Tales (and Fantasies) of Sports, Sex, and Salvation from Behind the Microphone, Carton recounts how as a teenager, he set up a casino at his parents’ home, replete with blackjack and roulette tables. For a year, things went swimmingly, until a kid lost his new baseball glove in a bet, and the whole operation came crashing down.
He also admits—boasts, really—that digging down deep into the muck is his job description. “For a guy like me, scandal is good business,” Carton writes. “Hell, for all of us, scandal is good business. Without scandal we’d be reduced to talking about the weather.”
That means taking risks. In a 2013 interview with Men’s Journal, Carton explains that when screaming at a caller about any random sports fact or bit of trivia, the best solution is always to double-down, especially when he suspects he might be in the wrong, even if it means concocting a bet that he’ll never have to pay off. “Put money on the table: ‘I got $100 that that really happened!’” he said. “You got to make it enough money where the other guy ain’t got it in his pocket either.” As an example, he said he might bellow, “I got $500 right fucking now that it happened in the third inning in ’62!”
If he isn’t able to return to WFAN, it’ll be a confirmation of his worst fears. As Carton said when he landed the job taking over for Imus, “The thought process was, ‘Don’t fuck it up.’”