Atiyeh Wins Appeal, Faces New Charges and Resentencing

28 March 2005

In a classic case of "good news, bad news," former gambling operator George Atiyeh won an appeal to a portion of his 2002 conviction, but now faces a new sentencing hearing.

Atiyeh operated International Casino, which accepted bets by phone on college and professional sports. It took in more than $1 million over 14 months in the mid-1990s, officials said.

Atiyeh went to trial after a lengthy grand jury investigation into his operation revealed that despite billing the business as being based in Costa Rica, where gambling is legal, Atiyeh had an office in Pennsylvania, where sports betting is illegal.

More than two years after his original trial, a three-judge appeals panel issued its ruling last week which said the district court many numerous errors in handling the original trial.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling focused on an obscure provision in the federal statute of limitations as well as the language and construction of Pennsylvania's anti-gambling law. The ruling depends partly on the use of the words ''is'' and ''was'' for the statute of limitations issue and the use of semicolons and the word ''or'' for the gambling law.

Prosecutors exceeded the five-year statute of limitations for the charge of transmission of wagering information, according to the appeals court, which dismissed those charges. The issue centered on whether prosecutors should be able to extend the five years when evidence is in a foreign nation.

In addition to dropping charges that the trial judge brought before Atiyeh, the appeals court ruled that other charges, which were dismissed by the trial judge, should be reinstated.

Atiyeh was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after his trial, but the judge ruled that the sentenced be suspended until Atiyeh exhausted all of his appeals. Because of the reinstated charges, the ruling appears to give U.S. District Judge Bruce Kauffman the opportunity — for the first time — to order Atiyeh to forfeit $650,000 in gambling proceeds.

In 2002, a federal jury convicted the former professional football player of all 15 counts involving his sports betting business. But Kauffman later dismissed more than half of the counts.

Kauffman will have to resentence Atiyeh based on the appeals court ruling, unless the ruling is challenged. Legal insiders said the new sentencing could be hard to predict since many factors have changed since the original trial.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory. Also, in February, Atiyeh began serving an 18-month federal sentence for an unrelated bankruptcy embezzlement case.

The resentencing could benefit Atiyeh because Kauffman can make the gambling sentence concurrent or consecutive to the bankruptcy sentence, said Atiyeh's lawyer, Peter Goldberger.

But the ruling might also give Kauffman a basis to impose a sentence longer than 15 months because the appeals court reinstated money laundering conspiracy charges, which carry the longest potential sentence of any of the charges, according to Paul Mansfield, an assistant U.S. attorney.

The appeals court also ruled that a defendant commits a crime under the state gambling law when at least one element of the law is violated. A ruling that means Atiyeh is subject to other charges that Kauffman had earlier dismissed.

Kauffman had ruled at least two of the elements had to be violated, including one involving bookmaking. The jury found the only element Atiyeh violated is one involving possession of gambling proceeds.

Atiyeh's case could be one that the U.S. Supreme Court would review. The nation's highest court has never addressed the statute of limitations issue. And a federal appeals court has reached only two other decisions on the issue.

In the bankruptcy case, Atiyeh pleaded guilty to embezzling about $280,000 that should have gone to creditors of his real estate business.

To read the full text of the Atiyeh appeal, click here

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