The Rake’s Helper: California man to cooperate with federal online gambling probe as part of plea deal

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Jan. 12, 2011

“Yes, your honor,” James Davitt said, over and over again, as he answered U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake’s questions during his Jan. 4 hearing in the federal courthouse in Baltimore. He was in Blake’s court to plead guilty to a single count of conducting an illegal gambling business. The hearing revealed that the 38-year-old California man—one of five people charged publicly in connection with an ongoing federal probe of online gambling staged by Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s Office (“The Ghost Hand,” Feature, March 24, 2010)—signed an agreement in November to cooperate with federal authorities in Maryland and New York, where a high-profile online gambling investigation is also underway.

Davitt’s plea agreement, as summarized by Blake during the hearing, may require him to testify in court and turn over documents. “If truthful in your cooperation,” Blake explained to Davitt, then the documents and information that he may provide “cannot be used against you” by prosecutors, though if he breaks the agreement or fails to be truthful, she continued, he could face new charges based on that same information. Davitt’s “sentencing might be delayed until your cooperation is complete,” Blake said. The prosecutor, Richard Kay, told Blake that Davitt’s cooperation will “take up at least the next several months.”

Davitt—a square-faced, broad-shouldered fellow with a close-cropped beard, wearing a brown suit—was released on his own recognizance while the charges are pending against him. His release form indicates he resides in La Habra, Calif. A portion of the hearing was spent addressing the fact that he keeps a gun in a safe at his home, which he is required to relinquish under the terms of his supervised release.

The other four people charged so far in Maryland are Edward Courdy, Michael Garone, Kenneth Wienski, and Martin Loftus. The cases against them, and related forfeiture cases in which the government seeks to keep seized cash, are part of a federal push to interrupt the flow of international online gambling money when it is in the United States, where the proceeds are considered illicit gains. The companies that provide online gambling services tend to be foreign entities that allegedly rely on facilitators, called “payment processors,” to conduct gambling transactions in the massive U.S. market, which is estimated to account for about 70 percent of the $4 billion-a-year industry.

Courdy, of California, and Garone, a Georgian, were charged with money laundering in 2008 (“Bodog Internet Gambling Investigation Leads to Money-Laundering Charges,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 30, 2008). The cases against both men were initially filed publicly, but disappeared from the court docket in late 2009, presumably after having been placed under seal by a judge. Courdy’s case appears to still be under seal, but Garone’s re-emerged on the public docket in December, when he was sentenced to a year of probation. He signed his plea agreement in September 2008, when the charges were first filed against him, and the agreement’s statement of facts describes a scheme in which he helped launder money used as payouts in 2007 to online gamblers who wagered on sites operated by Bodog, a company based in Canada and Costa Rica. The transactions amounted to at least $7.9 million.

Gambling and money-laundering charges were leveled against Wienski, a Missourian, in May 2010 (“Billing Complaint,” Mobtown Beat, May 24, 2010). The 12-page criminal complaint against Wienski accuses him of using a medical-billing company, SNR Inc., and a check-processing company where he worked, Diversified Check Solutions, to move online gambling funds in 2009. The complaint also summarizes how federal law enforcers in Maryland have gone after the industry since 2006, when then President George W. Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) prohibiting internet gambling-related transactions in the United States. To date, Wienski has not had any court appearances related to the Maryland charges.

Davitt’s name was mentioned numerous times in the complaint against Wienski, though Davitt himself was not formally charged until Dec. 7 (“Superfecta,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 10, 2010). In the Wienski complaint, Davitt is described as using two California companies, HMD Inc. and Forshay Enterprises—both of which have had funds seized by investigators (The News Hole, Sept. 24, 2009)—to facilitate online gambling transactions. In particular, Davitt and Wienski are alleged to have moved funds for two of the world’s largest online poker sites—Ireland’s Full Tilt Poker, and Poker Stars, based in the Isle of Man—in 2009 via HMD and SNR. Davitt’s plea agreement says $3.9 million in Full Tilt Poker money was involved in the transactions for which he pleaded guilty.

In preparing for Davitt to plead guilty, the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a memorandum to persuade Blake that online poker is primarily a game of chance rather than skill, and thus is illegal under Maryland law (The News Hole, Dec. 16, 2010). The memorandum, which includes as an attachment an academic paper prepared for prosecutors by University of Maryland mathematics professor Benjamin Kedem, addresses a subject that has been hotly debated. Last year in Pennsylvania, a state judge ruled that “skill predominates over chance” in poker, though the ruling was later overturned by a higher state court.

On Dec. 8, 2010, the day after Davitt was charged, a criminal information was filed against Loftus, accusing him of a single count of money laundering in connection with the 2009 transfer of $1.5 million from Switzerland to an HMD bank account in California. Details of the accusation against Loftus are spare, though in Davitt’s guilty plea, Loftus and another man—Daward Lee Falls, the CEO of Electracash, a California company previously associated with Courdy (The News Hole, Sept. 24, 2009) —are named as having “made arrangements with representatives of Full Tilt Poker to make payments by checks to gamblers through HMD, Inc.” Loftus is scheduled to be arraigned in court on Jan. 19.

Loftus and Wienski, neither of whom have defense attorneys listed on their case dockets, could not be reached for comment, and neither could Garone. Courdy’s attorney, Stanley Greenberg, has consistently declined comment. Falls has not responded to City Paper’s numerous messages since investigators seized money from Electracash bank accounts in 2009. Davitt’s attorney, Christopher Mead, had no comment.

In addition to the five men charged in Maryland’s online gambling investigation, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Marcia Murphy writes in an e-mail that “our office has seized $65 million, some of which is still being litigated.” The amount, while large, pales in comparison to the federal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which Davitt will be helping under his plea agreement. There, for instance, more than half a billion dollars has been seized in connection with charges against Douglas Rennick, a Canadian, who ran payment-processing companies that served the online gambling industry, and another $300 million was forfeited by Anurag Dikshit, a founder of partypoker.com. Both men pleaded guilty in 2010. In addition, the Financial Times in London reported last year that Full Tilt Poker is under criminal investigation by New York’s Southern District prosecutors.

The fact that Davitt’s plea agreement commits him to cooperating with authorities both in Maryland and in the Southern District of New York suggests investigators in the two jurisdictions are coordinating their efforts. And, since efforts to repeal the UIGEA failed during the lame-duck session of Congress that ended in December, it appears that facilitators of online gambling in the United States will remain targeted by federal investigators for the foreseeable future. At the very least, the ongoing probe is proving lucrative to federal coffers.

Luck of the Draw: Police Bust Gunmen Robbing Greektown Poker Game

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, June 7, 2006

IN A 15-MINUTE PERIOD AROUND 11 P.M. on Thursday, May 25, Baltimore City racked up 21 victims of violent crime in Greektown: 18 armed robberies and three attempted armed robberies. The incident is a blow to the victims and to Mayor Martin O’Malley’s attempts to reduce violent crime in the city—a central theme of his campaign for governor. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the two suspects were caught while robbing $23,827 from a high-stakes poker game, an illegal activity that O’Malley made light of last fall, after police raided two poker games that netted charges against nearly 100 players.

Last Nov. 17, O’Malley discussed the poker raids on WBAL Radio, relating cheekily how he had asked police commanders, “‘How many people do we have assigned to the poker task force? Do you think we could reassign them to the violent-crime and drug task force?’” He continued, “It seems like we’ve become obsessed with poker games. I think there are more deadly challenges facing our city and our citizens.”

As of press time, the police department had not responded to City Paper’s request for information and comment about the Greektown poker robbery. When mayoral spokeswoman Raquel Guillory was asked if the mayor’s thoughts about poker enforcement had changed after the robbery, she had only this to say: “We have a vice squad who, along with other crimes, track these as well. These particular types of games pose a risk to the players because there is usually a large amount of money and the police don’t know about them. But these are illegal.”

One of the victims, criminal defense attorney Stephen L. Prevas (a brother of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas), rues that the poker-game heist chalked up a host of offenses on the city’s violent-crime tables. “One event that takes 10, 15 minutes,” he points out in a telephone interview after the robbery, “and it skews the statistics.”

Another victim, Jason Thomas Lantz, was pistol-whipped during the incident, according to a police report contained in the court records. “It opened up a nice gash on the guy’s head,” Prevas recalls. “It was ugly, but everybody remained rather calm.”

The timing of the robbery, Prevas adds, was perfect. “Of any time to strike,” he says, “that particular time on a Thursday night was good, to maximize the benefits” of a robbery, because more than the usual amounts of cash were on hand.

Prevas, who represented two dealers charged with gambling in one of last November’s poker raids, would like to see poker legalized and regulated in Maryland. However, “when it is done in this fashion”—illegally, with lots of money on the table—he opines, “the biggest negative is that someone will get robbed. Any time you put a bunch of people with a lot of money in their pockets in one place, it is going to put a gleam in someone’s eye. I may start going to Atlantic City again—it keeps you honest.” Or, he adds, “I may just stay in games that are in someone’s home where I’m familiar with people.” At any rate, Prevas says, “as I understand it, the game will not reopen at that particular place.”

Prevas, who has been a member of the Maryland Bar since 1973, had $1,700 taken from him during the robbery and says that money is now in police hands. He contends that, while a poker game was in progress at the time, he wasn’t playing. “You can infer what you want,” he asserts when asked why he had so much money while watching a poker game. “But in the scheme of things, it’s not that big of a bankroll. I am used to having cash on my person.”

Another victim, real-estate investor Jeremiah B. Landsman, says he had $900 in his wallet when it was taken from him by the robbers. “I got most of it back,” he says, after the police busted the perpetrators. He, too, contends that he wasn’t playing poker. “Everybody knows gambling is illegal,” he states in a phone interview. “And I don’t want to do anything illegal.” As for the amount of money he possessed at the time, he explains that “I’m in real estate, so I always carry a lot of cash.”

While police found $23,827 in the robbers’ bag once they were detained, court records indicate that only $15,429 was attributed to the 18 individuals who were robbed. The court records don’t explain the discrepancy, but the remainder may have belonged to the game’s organizers. “I have nothing to say about the house money,” Landsman says when asked about the differing sums.

The arrested suspects are 31-year-old Todd Mikal of Glen Burnie and 27-year-old Ronnie Lee Jones of Parkville. Mikal is charged with 131 counts, including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, although a search of court records shows that this is the first time he’s been charged with a crime in Maryland. Jones was charged with 127 counts in connection with the poker robbery. Court records reveal that, since 1997, Jones has faced 17 charges for crimes including auto theft, illegal firearms, assault, robbery, theft, and juror intimidation. He was never convicted, though in 1999 he received two years of supervised probation before judgment for assault.

According to the police report, the crime was interrupted after one of the victims, Wayne Byers Long Jr., flagged down a passing patrol car and stated that a robbery was in progress at 4600 Eastern Ave. Long’s Parkville address is an apartment a few blocks away from Ronnie Jones’ home. Attempts to reach Long, in order to ask him if he knows the suspect, were unsuccessful.

The robbers, Prevas recalls, entered the back room of the premises through a side door.

“They came in behind a guy who’d been playing in the game fairly regularly,” he says. “[Someone] saw him through the peephole [in the door] and let him in.” One of the robbers “was doing all the talking, and was very loud and intimidating, and the other was the bag man,” who put the cash and wallets into a sack.

Once Long had hailed the police, “in seconds there were bunches of police there,” Prevas continues. “The friendly perps were just finishing up their business, saying ‘Good night and thank you, gentlemen,’ or something to that effect, when three cops appeared at the landing with their guns drawn. One guy gave it up immediately, and the other guy took off out the door,” Prevas recalls. The police quickly chased him down.

“It was a sense of vindication that they actually got caught,” Prevas says.

State records show the owner of 4600 Eastern Ave. to be Pete Koroneos, whose other interests over the years include a strip club and a restaurant on the Block, a Fells Point bar, and the Broadway Diner, located just east of Greektown on Eastern Avenue. A sign for the diner graces the side of the nondescript building that hosted the ill-fated poker game, and is the only identifying mark on the newly painted building other than the street number affixed to the mailbox on the front door. Attempts to reach Koroneos at his Otterbein condominium, in order to ask him about the poker game held in his Greektown property, were unsuccessful.

Landsman and Prevas indicate that the property has long been a home for poker—though Landsman insists that it was “only for fun, only for chips, not money.”

“It’s a men’s club,” he continues, “where we would eat, drink, watch games. It was a really nice group of people and a really good time. I would go once a week. It was a great place to network with other professionals from Baltimore.”

Another victim, Gilbert Roden, is more direct. “It was a bunch of guys that get together and play poker,” he says over the phone.

The list of 21 robbery victims includes 11 people whose names also appear on the membership lists of two other poker clubs: the Owls Nest, which was raided by police last fall, and a related entity called the Orioles Nest (“Fouled Nests,” Nov. 23, 2005). Two of the Greektown victims had been arrested for gambling at the Owls Nest raid, and their charges were later dropped.

None of the poker-playing victims of the Greektown robbery has been charged with a crime—in contrast to the gambling charges that resulted from last November’s raids of the Owls Nest and another game at the Aces High Club on Harford Road. Without police comment, City Paper has not been able to determine whether the decision not to charge the gamblers resulted from O’Malley’s public statements that enforcing the law against poker games squanders police resources.

Landsman, however, says he believes “the police handled [the Greektown poker robbery] perfectly. It was a bad situation with the best possible outcome.” Nonetheless, he states, “obviously, these games draw crime. It’s unfortunate.”