There may be some red faces among prosecutors and enforcement officers in Maricopa County in the state of Arizona this week after a local Superior Court judge sent gambling-ring charges back to the grand jury because a county prosecutor failed to inform the jury of important legal facts in getting the indictments.
The latest scolding by a judge follows a similar action a week ago when Judge Roland Steinle also threw out all the misdemeanor counts in the case – mostly charges of benefiting from gambling – because the Maricopa County Attorney's Office had failed to get indictments before the one-year statute of limitations ran out on those crimes.
The Arizona Republic newspaper reports that more than 30 defendants faced 130 felony and 80 misdemeanor counts for placing and collecting on bets conducted through Costa Rican online gambling Web sites.
Steinle had already remanded charges against two defendants in September because the prosecutor failed to mention that the Costa Rican Web sites were possibly protected by international treaty and because of the prosecutor's failure to answer questions about the legality of actions that took place in Costa Rica.
On Thursday, Steinle threw out charges against nine other defendants, leaving twenty defendants charged with multiple felonies in the case.
The newspaper reports that Eugene Valentini was one of the first two defendants to have his case remanded because the prosecutor was unable to answer Judge Steinle's questions as to the legality of online gaming in Costa Rica, an independent Central American nation where the Web sites are located.
"The actions for which (my client) is accused are lawful and are controlled by an emerging body of federal, state and international law which should have been studied in detail before bringing this case before a grand jury," said Valentini's legal representative, who was supported by another lawyer representing fellow accused James Bennitt.
"In this case, by virtue of its treaty obligations, the United States has agreed to certain international conventions that seem to establish that this is lawful conduct," he added, referring to the Internet gambling.
Bennitt also claimed that the prosecutor had made false statements to the grand jury, painting Bennitt as a ringleader instead of a bettor; his case was remanded in September.
Apparently unfazed, or perhaps putting a brave face on the implied reprimands, the County Attorney's Office characterised the remands and the dismissed counts as minor obstacles in the case.
"We can now take those cases back to the grand jury if we choose to do so," said Barnett Lotstein, a spokesman for the office.
As for the dropped misdemeanors, Lotstein said, "We felt at the time we charged them that we had a viable argument because of the circumstances of the case."
The case made headlines in April 2007 when the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office claimed it had broken up four loosely associated gambling rings. The defendants were allegedly operating gaming Web sites headquartered in Costa Rica, where online gaming is legal. At question is whether payments and bets on sporting events were made and paid face-to-face in Maricopa County or if the transactions took place electronically.
Sheriff's detectives claimed to have infiltrated the rings and the courts authorised wiretaps to track the gambling, then sheriff's deputies served search warrants in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and arrested more than 30 men and women (see previous InfoPowa reports).
Deputies arrested some of the defendants at their homes, and as permitted under racketeering laws, cars, cash and property were seized to the value of $30 miillion. In at least one case, a defendant claims that deputies took the wedding ring off his wife's finger, despite warrants being clear that they were not to take items of sentimental value.
There followed some complicated jurisdictional moves after Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard recused himself because he was being investigated by the county attorney's and sheriff's offices over his handling of a criminal case against a former state Treasurer.
To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, Goddard sent the case to the Pima County Attorney's Office. But David Henderschott, chief deputy for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, allegedly told Pima County prosecutors that he would not cooperate with their handling of the case, and the Sheriff's Office sent its attorney, Dennis Wilenchik, to bring the case – and the money – back to Maricopa County. Wilenchik did just that. It is now being prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
In February, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was fined by a Pima County court for failing to turn over public records in the case to a Tucson newspaper in a timely manner.
Indictments in the case were obtained on March 8.
The 33 defendants were charged with 250 crimes, including racketeering, illegal use of wire or electronic communication, promotion of gambling, benefiting from gambling, money laundering, betting and wagering, and extortion.
Neither the Attorney General's Office nor the Sheriff's Office would comment when approached by The Arizona Republic.