Sunday April 21, 2013 : U.S. GAMBLING RING DEFENDANTS CHARGED
Almost three dozen colourful characters plead not guilty
The massive enforcement swoop on internet sports betting and poker that started in New York and spread across the United States last week had a sequel in a federal court in Manhattan Friday, when more than 30 defendants pleaded not guilty.
Over the weekend, the Associated Press news agency succinctly summed up the widely reported federal raids, saying that a colourful cast of characters stand accused of involvement in the sprawling scheme allegedly controlled by organised crime rings in Russia and America.
Among those arrested were celebrity poker players, a glamorous high stakes poker organiser, a billionaire art gallery owner and individuals accused of money laundering and running illegal internet sports betting enterprises.
Prosecutors in the case claim that at least $100 million in illegal gambling proceeds have been laundered through hundreds of bank accounts and shell companies in Cyprus and the United States.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian organised crime expert at New York University, told the news agency that the case illustrates "…the insatiable appetite for sports betting around the globe, and the enormous potential for illicit profits. The steep rise in wealth among the upper class in the former Soviet Union has driven that potential to new heights."
Galeotti added that higher-rolling businessmen are involved in these types of cases…and the bookies handling their action are left with the problem "of trying to figure out what to do with suitcases full of cash."
One of the alleged U.S. ringleaders was living in a luxury apartment on Fifth Avenue, just one floor below Donald Trump's apartment.
"There, he oversaw a network of Internet sites that formed ‘the world's largest sports book' catering ‘almost exclusively to oligarchs living in the Ukraine and the Russian Federation,' prosecutors claim.
Federal agents eavesdropped on thousands of cellphone conversations, prosecutors said, pointing to one exchange in which the alleged ring leader warned a customer who owed money that "he should be careful, lest he be tortured or found underground."
The ring is alleged to have paid Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov – already under indictment in a separate U.S. case accusing him of bribing Olympic figure skating judges at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – $20 million in gambling proceeds in a two-month period alone, court documents reveal.
In another transaction in late 2010, the same man wired $3 million from a Cyprus bank account to another account in the United States, the documents show.
Mafia undertones are evident in the indictment, accusing Tokhtakhounov of being a "vor" – a term roughly translated to "thief-in-law" and comparable to a Mafia godfather, reports Associated Press.
International celebrities and businessmen with a taste for high stakes poker were uncovered by federal investigators enquiring into a related enterprise that allegedly involved a top art gallery owned by billionaire Hillel Nahmad, and a glamorous 34-year-old women who organised games in New York's swish Plaza Hotel for the rich and famous, some of whom ran up substantial debts.
The woman, Molly Bloom, apparently had a run-in with ‘Eastern European thugs' in 2010, when she was roughed up.
The trial of the defendants has been scheduled for the summer of 2014, and will attract massive interest as the results of the federal investigation unfold.
But, Associated Press points out, one of the lead characters in the drama is currently not available; 64-year-old Tokhtakhounov is reportedly living in luxury in Russia, where he is alleged to be an important leader in the Russian criminal underworld.