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IRS giving messenger bettors close look during March Madness

Local sports book directors have plenty to shout about with March Madness in full swing. The NCAA basketball tournament generates millions in sports bets and is a big winner for Las Vegas.

But the betting bosses go strangely silent when asked to address the issue of the IRS’s new interest in the activity of messenger bettors, who place wagers on behalf of big gamblers and potentially violate Nevada law. Messenger bettors also might be breaking federal currency transaction reporting requirements.

Millions in unreported income could lead to major tax cases and appear to have sent a wakeup call to the casino industry, which knows plenty about the movement and identity of those messenger bettors.

One sports book insider tells me there is a new emphasis on making sure players file the appropriate paperwork.

Whether this development leads some sports books to discontinue the practice of issuing casino chips in lieu of cash (which can necessitate the filing of a currency transaction report) remains unclear.

At the IRS, Special Agent in Charge Paul Camacho won’t discuss the strategy of his Criminal Investigation agents, but he emphasized the healthy and active working relationship between his office and the Gaming Control Board.

“Many out-of-state operations use runners to lay off bets in Vegas,” Camacho said. “A word of caution to those acting as runners for bookies: You are obligated to inform the casino who you are conducting the transaction on behalf of. Withholding information will cause a false Currency Transaction Report to be filed. Willfully causing a false CTR is a felony. Federal forfeiture statutes also may apply, making the vig the worst bet in town.”

On the street, no one knows more about sports book runners from the players’ perspective than Artie Bodendorfer, sometimes known as “Artie B” and “Artie the Middler.”

Around Chicago, Bodendorfer was known as a pool hustler with few peers. He also was never far from the city’s loose-knit fraternity of bookmakers, sports bettors, and the dangerous Outfit characters who muscled them.

In his career, he has served time for contempt in Chicago for refusing to cooperate in a mob investigation and six months on a federal gambling case in Las Vegas. Back in 2001, he was forced to forfeit $1.1 million in the local gambling case; but in those days he kept that kind of money in shoeboxes. (Which makes me think he must have some big feet.)

Although Bodendorfer assures skeptics his days spent sending two dozen runners into the field to pluck weak betting lines at Strip sports books like cherries are over, he holds a doctorate in gambling and surviving.

For Artie B., all the chatter about the dangers of messenger wagering is overrated. As betting lines have become more uniform, and places to bet have rapidly expanded in the Caribbean and on the Internet, most big players no longer need to maintain an army of runners.

Besides, he said, the casinos know the runners, let them bet, and even comp them. And the state gaming regulators have rarely shown an interest in enforcing the messenger betting law, which leads Artie B. to think they don’t have much faith in it.

“What’s the difference whose money it is?” he asks. “They stopped my runners 20, 30 times in 20 years. You know what they did? They gave them back their money and their radios, and they went right back to work five minutes afterwards.

“There’s hardly no runners. Why would you mess with all that taxpayer money? For what? For two runners? And if they went after them, why didn’t they do something when I was there? There were hundreds of runners then.”

Those were good days for Artie B., but those days are over. The IRS is looking over the sports betting industry’s shoulder, and there’s an unseasonable chill in the March air.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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