Probe could expand

Tocchet case might result in charges against others associated with NHL

Gambling

February 09, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

The New Jersey investigation that puts Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet at the center of an illegal bookmaking operation could widen to include charges against others associated with the NHL if it were found that their involvement went beyond placing wagers with the betting ring Tocchet allegedly helped finance.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice said placing bets is not illegal in that state but activities that further a betting operation, such as passing on a bet to an illegal bookmaker or even referring a friend or acquaintance to a bookmaker, can be violations. Police have said some of the clients of the New Jersey-based gambling ring, which handled more than $1 million in wagers mostly early this year, included a number of NHL players or people closely associated with pro hockey teams.

"We're now trying to identify who were bettors, and they will be contacted and interviewed." said John Hagerty, a spokesman for the state's Division of Criminal Justice.

In some instances, such cases take on a broader sweep as witnesses and potential defendants inform on each other.

Law enforcement officials have declined to identify the NHL personalities they suspect were betting clients. Phoenix coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky said in a televised interview Tuesday night that he was not involved and expressed surprise when asked if his wife, actress Janet Jones, had connections to the betting ring, as reported earlier in the day.

Police have said that wagers were not made on hockey and that most of the wagering was on football and baseball.

"This is a gambling investigation, not a fixing investigation." Hagerty said.

Hagerty emphasized that the investigation announced Tuesday, in which Tocchet, a New Jersey state policeman and another New Jersey man were accused of a variety of gambling-related offenses, is in its early stages.

"This is the first step in a very long and very complicated process." Hagerty said. Eventually, the charges will be presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether there is sufficient probable cause to issue indictments.

Yesterday, Tocchet was scheduled to be on the East Coast. A league spokesman said a representative of Tocchet met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman but was unsure if Tocchet was present. The league has hired a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Robert Cleary, to conduct an internal investigation.

Tocchet was not behind the bench for the Coyotes' Tuesday night home game, a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Tocchet's lawyer is quoted on ESPN.com as saying accusations that the former player financed an illegal gambling operation with organized crime are false.

In a summons dated Feb. 5 and announced Tuesday, Tocchet, 41, who played with six NHL teams from 1984-85 through 2001-02, is charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.

Similarly charged were the state trooper, James J. Harney, 40, of Marlton, N.J., and James A. Ulmer, 40, of Swedesboro, N.J. Harney also is accused of official misconduct. Both were arrested and released after posting 10 percent of $100,000 and $50,000 bail, respectively.

The offenses the three face are considered second-degree crimes in New Jersey and are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Tocchet is not required to surrender to authorities, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice. A judge will issue a date for Tocchet to appear in court, but the coach can waive that appearance and simply post bail

At some point, all three could face arraignment, which in New Jersey provides an opportunity for defendants to be further notified of the charges they face.

According to warrants served on Harney and Ulmer and a summons issued to Tocchet, the gambling ring operated from 2001 until late January or early February of this year. Police documents describe 594 bets taken by the ring amounting to $1,086,100 from Dec. 29, 2005, to Feb. 5, 2006. Those familiar with bookmaking operations say that profits usually range from 3 to 10 percent of the total amount wagered.

The investigation, named "Operation Slap Slot." began in late October 2005 when police learned that Harney, an eight-year veteran of the state police, was operating a betting ring. Undercover police successfully placed wagers with the ring. Police also said the investigation revealed ties to organized crime in Philadelphia and South Jersey but provided no specifics about that connection.

It remains unclear what action the NHL may take against Tocchet or players, coaches or front-office personnel who may be involved as clients of the gambling ring. NHL players are forbidden to bet on NHL games, but are not prohibited from other legal gambling activity.

The NFL, in its policy on gambling, lists among activities that call for serious penalties "associating with gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner tending to bring discredit to the NFL." In its policy, the league explicitly forbids betting on NFL games but does not directly ad dress wagering on other sports.

NBA players can be suspended or expelled for betting on the league's games. There are no prohibitions on betting on other sports.

Major League Baseball provides for penalties ranging from a year suspension to lifetime banishment for betting on baseball . Other gambling is not addressed, but a broad misconduct provision warns of penalties for conduct not in the best interests of the game.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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