Sheriff Joe Arpaio may not be a sports fan, but he obviously knows the score.
He has an accountant’s grasp of the underlying importance of last week’s bookmaking bust in the heart of his turf, Maricopa County, Ariz.
When Arizona authorities raided four loosely associated groups suspected of running a multimillion-dollar illegal Internet bookmaking operation with ties to Las Vegas, the response from the street gambling community was predictable.
What are they doing picking on the poor bookies?
Don’t they know betting is a victimless crime?
And my personal favorite: Is the world so safe from al-Qaida the coppers have time to investigate gamblers?
The answer is simple. The alleged bookmakers in question have money. Lots of money. Millions in cash and traceable assets, to be precise. Expensive cars, nice houses, thoroughbreds, fat bank accounts.
It’s been sitting right there. In fact, I’ll speculate that law enforcement will one day acknowledge that the targets of their two-year undercover investigation hid in plain sight and spent a lot of time at high-stakes poker tables, high-end betting windows at thoroughbred tracks — not to mention in contact with Caribbean Internet sports books whose operators are currently on the lam. You can make friends with that kind of money, but you can make enemies, too — enemies who will burn you to the police if it suits their interests.
Back to Sheriff Joe. He’s the law enforcement boss known nationally for his tent city prison camps, where inmates are forced to wear pink boxer shorts, eat a lot of baloney and bread, and aren’t allowed to smoke or watch anything but G-rated television. Arpaio has gathered big headlines for making his “chain gang” road crews wear striped uniforms.
He’s known as a guy who never met a press conference he didn’t like. Inmates and ACLU lawyers hate Sheriff Joe, but prisoners don’t vote, and a majority of voters loves his style and gives him an 80 percent approval rating.
After a recent conversation with the sheriff, it’s clear to me his sense of smell is impeccable. Surely he smells the potential for millions in seizures from the recent bust.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a major gambling operation involving the old traditional people,” says Arpaio, who adds he was once a Las Vegas cop with the old City Police Department. “Since I’m Italian-American, I can say this. I worked on the traditional mob when I was with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.”
The figures associated with the case are impressive and growing: $145 million in assets, 23 luxury vehicles, 19 racehorses belonging to gambler Ralph DePiero, $8 million in cash, 120 bank accounts and more being discovered.
What about the argument the police are picking on the gamblers when they should have better things to do?
“We do a lot of things,” the sheriff says. “We go after corruption and everything else. I’m an equal opportunity lockup. I lock up everybody and keep them in tents.”
Although my law enforcement sources say the mob connections in this case are pretty thin, the money and material assets are undeniable.
Deputy Chief Bill Knight notes that hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was regularly transferred from the Arizona bookmakers to subjects in Las Vegas.
In Las Vegas last week, search warrants were served at several residences of gamblers with Internet sports betting ties. Arizona police surveillance tracked Las Vegas residents Michael Buono Sr. and Michael Buono Jr. in a meeting with a target of the investigation where more than $250,000 in cash changed hands, Knight says. The homes of Las Vegas gamblers Brandt England and Steven Prentky were also searched.
It’s too late now, but you would have thought that with so much at stake, the gamblers would have been just a little more careful.
“The way to hit these gamblers is through the pocketbook,” Arpaio says.
Now they’re almost certain to spend millions on high-priced attorneys to keep their freedom and keep their assets from being seized down to the last dime. Those bookmakers and betting agents should kick themselves for not at least spending a few bucks on funny nose-glasses disguises.
I’ll bet they own some now.
Although I can’t think of anything that makes pink boxers and striped uniforms look good.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.JOHN L. SMITHMORE COLUMNSDiscuss this column in the eForums!