NY judge takes stern approach with gambling ring

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Associated Press

Posted on April 30, 2014 at 1:03 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 30 at 6:34 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A wealthy Manhattan art scion was sentenced to a year and day in prison on Wednesday for illegal gambling after a judge accused him of trying to avoid punishment by offering to use his family's fortune to fund an art appreciation charity for disadvantaged children.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman told Hillel "Helly" Nahmad in Manhattan federal court that allowing him to stay free and start the charity "would breed contempt for the law."

Speaking haltingly, Nahmad had told the judge that he was ashamed of letting his lifelong gambling habit cross a legal line.

"My family is a private family and I brought dishonor to it," Nahmad said in a courtroom packed with supporters. "I will never forgive myself for what I have done."

Under federal sentencing rules, adding one day to the one-year sentence allows Nahmad to qualify for less time with good behavior. He was ordered to surrender to prison by June 16.

Nahmad, 35, pleaded guilty last year to charges he helped run an illegal sports betting business that was exposed by an investigation of a sprawling scheme by Russian-American organized crime enterprises. He was among more than 30 people named in indictments alleging a plot to launder at least $100 million through hundreds of bank accounts and shell companies in Cyprus and the United States.

The gambling ring catered mostly to super-rich bettors in Russia but also had tentacles in New York City, where it ran illegal card games that attracted professional athletes, film stars and business executives, prosecutors said. Some of the defendants are professional poker players.

Nahmad comes from an art-dealing clan whose collection includes 300 Picassos worth $900 million, according to Forbes. He also is known for socializing with Hollywood luminaries like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Defense papers had described Nahmad as a widely respected art dealer and "inveterate gambler" who made the mistake of getting mixed up with professionals who took advantage of him to cover massive losses.

"He's a good person and he screwed up and he's worth saving," said defense attorney Benjamin Brafman.

But the judge said that wiretap evidence showed that Nahmad wasn't just "the rich kid who is getting used."

In one conversation, Nahmad discussed booking bets with someone who had just gotten out of a rehabilitation clinic.

"We knock this guy off for one million bucks," Nahmad said. "His dad is a multimillionaire."

The judge also questioned Brafman about a photo published in the New York Post shortly after Nahmad's arrest, showing him wearing a cap with a playing card on it and sitting courtside at a New York Knicks game next to the lawyer. Prosecutors suggested Nahmad was making light of the case.

Brafman said he was just trying to cheer up his despondent client by taking him to the game and Nahmad randomly grabbed the hat on the way out the door to conceal his identity.

"That's how the stupid photo occurred. ... Blame me," Brafman said.

Prosecutors had alleged that, along with laundering tens of millions of dollars, Nahmad committed fraud by trying to sell a piece of art for $300,000 that was worth at least $50,000 less. He was required to turn over the painting to the government as part of a $6.4 million judgment.

So far, 28 people have pleaded guilty in the case. Earlier Wednesday, the judge sentenced another defendant to five years in prison.

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Associated Press Writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.

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