On Thin Ice

Rick Tocchet, the former Philadelphia Flyers All-Star right winger, spent eighteen years in the National Hockey League, thanks to the rare combination of a scorer’s touch and an enforcer’s mentality.

Rick Tocchet, the former Philadelphia Flyers All-Star right winger, spent eighteen years in the National Hockey League, thanks to the rare combination of a scorer’s touch and an enforcer’s mentality. In the mid-1980s, he and teammate Dave Brown were known as the Bruise Brothers, and Tocchet forever endeared himself to tough-guy Flyers fans for playing the majority of a game in March 1992 with a broken jaw. He scored two goals, including the game winner.

It’s been more than a year since Tocchet, serving as an assistant head coach on former teammate Wayne Gretzky’s staff with the Phoenix Coyotes, set foot on the ice. Tocchet is on voluntary leave from the team after he was accused of playing a major role in a New Jersey-based gambling ring that allegedly involved a state trooper; Gretzky’s wife, actress Janet Jones; and, perhaps, organized crime.

The allegation that Tocchet placed bets for Jones triggered a media frenzy, but authorities later conceded that they had yet to turn up any evidence of Mob involvement in the ring or of wrongdoing by Gretzky’s wife or any of the other bettors. Meanwhile, Jones and Gretzky threatened the state with a $50 million defamation suit.

But today, as evidence collected during an investigation dubbed “Operation Slapshot” that began in October 2005 is being heard by a grand jury, there seem to be fewer goals made than attempted. Only two of three key suspects—state trooper James Harney and James Ulmer, who both pleaded guilty last year—are awaiting sentencing. Harney and Ulmer (the latter being the bagman, the person designated to collect money for higher-ups) claim the former Flyers star was a founding member of the ring, but Tocchet insists he’s done nothing wrong, and despite being charged with promoting gambling, he has yet to be indicted by the grand jury.

Tocchet and his attorney, Kevin Marino, have declined to speak about the case. And while the 42-year-old hockey star reportedly is willing to negotiate with authorities in hopes of having the charges dropped or reduced so that he can return to the ice, so far neither the police nor prosecutors have been receptive. State officials say privately that they have ample evidence against Tocchet. “I wish all my cases had this kind of physical proof and corroborative evidence,” says one state official familiar with the investigation. (The adjudication of the gambling charge—which apparently involves betting only on football and basketball, not hockey—has knowledgeable sources speaking on the condition of anonymity.)

But lost in the controversy surrounding Tocchet’s alleged role in the ring is a much more challenging matter for state police and other officials: Harney, an eight-year state police veteran, managed to run a lucrative gambling ring practically under their noses without being detected. Authorities say there is little question that Harney was the ring’s key player on the street, a job for which he was singularly well suited.

By all accounts, Harney met the characters who would later figure prominently in this probe nearly a decade ago when he worked as a bartender at Legends, then a popular South Philly sports bar. While there, the future trooper and budding bookie rubbed shoulders with a clientele that included famous athletes, Tocchet among them, and more than a few infamous characters, including Anthony Staino, a reputed underboss in the Philadelphia Mob.

Staino, through his attorney, Gregory Pagano, has denied any connection to Harney’s alleged gambling operation. Pagano says, “Anthony’s a businessman and a gentleman and I don’t know him to be anything else.” Neither Harney nor Ulmer have acknowledged any Mob ties to their operation.

But investigators are not so sure.

“Look, there’s no way in the environment that we live in that anybody would be allowed to run a book the size that they were running without paying…someone,” says one law enforcement official closely tied to the probe. So far, however, authorities say they haven’t been able to prove the ring had a connection to organized crime. “We have them interacting with a number of people who are the types of folks that they would have to compensate for doing that,” the source says. “But they have not admitted that, and that’s not the type of stuff that you would intercept normally, so somebody has to roll over to give that up and that hasn’t happened yet. But the bottom line is this was a big, big-time book, and nobody runs a book in somebody else’s neighborhood without paying the appropriate tribute.”

Authorities insist that Harney, 41, developed a close relationship with Tocchet just before the player was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992. He also became close to James Ulmer, who would later plead guilty to promoting gambling and who had perhaps already begun to take small-time bets. But it wasn’t until several years later, after Harney had joined the state police in 1997, authorities say, that the ring began to operate in earnest.

As a trooper, James Harney was undistinguished. But as a bookie, he was a stunning success. By the time of his arrest in February 2006, he had amassed a significant fortune. He owned a spacious home in Marlton and had bought a townhouse in Mount Laurel for his estranged wife and their twin sons. He owned luxury cars, nine plasma televisions, and a collection of Rolex watches conservatively estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars—formidable holdings for a trooper earning $74,500 a year on the books. He also apparently accomplished almost all of that in his spare time, at least according to his attorney, Craig Mitnick. “Jimmy Harney was a New Jersey trooper acting outside his duties as a trooper,” Mitnick says. “I believe [he] indicates that on one occasion while he was in uniform…a bet was either placed or taken.”

Others dispute that, adding that Harney often took bets while in uniform. What is astonishing is that despite Harney’s apparent wealth and willingness to flaunt it, few if any of his colleagues at the troubled Troop D barracks in Moorestown or elsewhere became suspicious about the source of his prosperity.

In the weeks after Harney’s arrest, state police investigators questioned more than 40 of his fellow troopers, and yet, according to court records and authorities familiar with the investigation, they believe that only two of the troopers had been aware of Harney’s extracurricular activities. Sergeant Michael Kaiser, a 21-year state police veteran who had been assigned to the Garden State Parkway barracks, was suspended after authorities alleged that he knew about Harney’s activities. Trooper Erik Ruczynski, also from the Parkway barracks, was suspended after police announced that they had evidence he discussed gambling with Harney. Neither man has been charged with being a member of the ring, and authorities say that no such charge is likely.

The other troopers’ apparent lack of curiosity about Harney may be particularly striking to civilians, but one insider says, “You have guys who fall off the reservation, but other guys don’t want to be a rat, so to speak. You know, the brotherhood is the brotherhood, especially in South Jersey.”

In fact, it was only after confidential informants approached the state police in the spring of 2005 with a tip about Ulmer that anyone suspected anything at all. Even then, say sources familiar with the probe, the police didn’t immediately focus on Harney. “It was confidential informants that we had that put us on to Ulmer,” says one source, and that in turn quickly led them back to Harney, and from him to Tocchet.

It took four months of wiretaps and other surveillance, but investigators ultimately concluded that they had uncovered a major gambling ring. In the 40 days leading up to last year’s Super Bowl, authorities contend, the ring processed about 1,000 illegal bets worth some $1.7 million. It was a formidable bust. But it also created a public relations problem, say some sources, because a state trooper from an already troubled barracks was at its center.

Tocchet, who was by then working for the Coyotes with Gretzky, insists that he was not a member of Harney’s gambling crew, but authorities and Harney paint a different picture. They insist that not only was he an equal partner in the operation, he also financed it and made significant profits from illegal bets that he funneled to New Jersey.

As it turned out, according to a former state official involved in internal discussions of the case, Tocchet’s high-profile connections in the sports world provided the state police with a public relations bonanza that they deftly exploited. First, the investigation became officially dubbed Operation Slapshot, even though there were no allegations then or now that Tocchet or any member of the ring collected bets on professional hockey games. Instead, according to state officials, the ring seems to have focused on football, both college and pro, and other sports.

“The state police did a very good job early on…of putting information out there regarding the sexy aspects of the investigation—for example, Tocchet and Gretzky and his wife, and all the other would-be bettors, which obviously gave it new legs,” the former official says. “The theory was, let’s focus the attention on all of these high-profile people. It was purely a move by state police at the time to minimize their exposure.”

State officials dispute that, insisting that they made no effort to either downplay the significance of Harney’s involvement or highlight the alleged involvement of celebrities.

All the same, when state officials, including state police superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes and then state Attorney General Zulima Farber, announced at a joint press conference in February 2006 that they had cracked the big-time gambling ring, it triggered a firestorm of international headlines, almost all of them focused on the celebrities.

In an effort to beat back some of that publicity, the National Hockey League appointed Robert Cleary, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey who prosecuted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, to head its own probe into the allegations against Tocchet and, by association, professional hockey. Cleary, who has said that he would wait until the state wrapped up its investigation before commenting publicly, did not return repeated telephone calls.

The truth is, the state’s probe has so far yielded no evidence that any of the big names—Gretzky, Jones, or others, including Phoenix Coyotes center Jeremy Roenick, who may have placed bets with Harney—had any direct involvement in the ring’s operation. For the moment, though, none of them are talking about the case. Although Gretzky’s attorney, Ron Fujikawa, has not returned repeated telephone calls, Gretzky maintains that he had no involvement at all and never even put a bet down. And while authorities say that they have tapes of a conversation between Gretzky and Tocchet in which Gretzky expresses concern about the potential legal problems posed by his wife’s gambling with the ring, they concede that there’s no evidence that Gretzky tried to impede the probe.

Authorities admit that they don’t even have any evidence to suggest that anyone other than Tocchet, Harney, and Ulmer committed a crime. Even if, as alleged, Jones and others did place wagers with the ring, they are not in legal jeopardy, state officials acknowledge, because betting through a bookie is not a crime in New Jersey.

As one high-ranking state official puts it, “although a person taking those calls was involved in criminal activity, the person placing the calls, whether they be a player or anybody else, wasn’t necessarily committing a state violation. But those actions on their part are material to the prosecution of the people running the operation.”

And those bettors, authorities say, have been or will be subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.

For two of the key players in the ring, when the grand jury concludes its work and the case goes to trial is a moot point. Last August, Harney, who faces up to seven years in prison, pleaded guilty to promoting gambling and official misconduct—despite his continued assertion that he conducted most of his illegal activity while he was off the clock. In an apologetic letter to state police brass, which has also been posted at his lawyer’s website, Harney confesses that his “personal judgment has been severely flawed” and adds that he is grief-stricken over “the humiliation and disgrace that I have caused to the Division of State Police.”

According to his attorney, Harney has pledged to cooperate with authorities and has been providing key support for the state’s assertion that Tocchet was a full partner in the gambling operation.

Ulmer also has pleaded guilty to promoting gambling, admitting that he served as a “sitter” who funneled bets to the ring. He too is cooperating with the state probe. When he is finally sentenced, he can expect to face a period behind bars “somewhere in the several-months range,” says his lawyer, Edwin Jacobs.

Tocchet, however, has not reached any accord with the prosecutors and continues to deny through his attorney that he was a partner in the betting ring, though he has been charged with promoting gambling and transporting up to $75,000 worth of illegal gambling proceeds.

In the meantime, Tocchet has been on an unpaid leave of absence from his lucrative position with the Coyotes since his name first surfaced in connection with the probe, and although technically his leave is voluntary, there is little chance that he will be able to return to work unless he’s exonerated.

There’s no telling how long it might take, authorities concede, before the grand jury concludes its work. In short, they say, it could be months, perhaps even years, before more indictments are handed down. Or before some people get a free skate.

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