ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. An illegal sports gambling ring run out of a high-stakes poker room in an Atlantic City casino was busted Wednesday, authorities said, and 18 people were arrested, including four with mob ties.
Since March 2006, the ring took in $22 million in bets on college and professional football and basketball in the poker room of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, said New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram.
The off-the-books exchanges of cash and casino chips were unraveled only when an informant told authorities what to look for using the casino's eye-in-the-sky surveillance cameras, Milgram said.
The suspected ringleader of the operation, Andrew Micali, 32, of Ventnor, is an associate of Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, according to a New Jersey law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the criminal complaints do not mention any reputed mob ties.
Micali was charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and loan-sharking.
Three associates of Micali also were arrested. Vincent Procopio, 41, of Brigantine, was charged with promoting gambling. Anthony Nicodemo, 36, and Michael Lancellotti, both of Philadelphia, were charged with conspiracy to promote gambling.
"They sought to escape detection by enlisting casino employees in their crimes," Milgram said. "I'm pleased to say they greatly underestimated our vigilance and determination to keep organized crime out of Atlantic City casinos."
Twenty-three people in all are charged, and authorities were seeking five on Wednesday. Most were charged with promoting gambling or money laundering.
Unlike Las Vegas, Atlantic City has no legal sports book.
Authorities said the Borgata cooperated with the investigation and let investigators use casino surveillance video.
Borgata spokesman Rob Stillwell said the ring involved "rogue employees." No one was arrested on the casino floor, and the integrity of the casino's operations was never compromised, he said.
The casino employees charged included poker room supervisors, dealers and a bartender.
The state Casino Control Commission was expected to punish the casino workers, commission spokesman Daniel Heneghan said.
The four men with alleged mob ties, along with Borgata supervisor Joseph Wishnick, 42, of Brigantine, were taken into custody Wednesday. Bail was set at $100,000 for Micali and $50,000 for the others. Wishnick was in custody Wednesday at the Atlantic County Jail. It was not immediately clear whether any of the others had posted bail or were waiting to be processed at the jail. None could be reached for comment by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The state Attorney General's Office said lawyers had not come forward for any of the 23 suspects.
If the charges are proven, the case would be among the most serious mob incursions into the Atlantic City casino industry since the first casino opened in 1978.
Milgram said authorities followed the money in the case from the casino to so-called "wire rooms" in Philadelphia. The wire rooms were used to tally the bets and calculate winnings and payouts for the ring.
The ring was publicized mainly by word of mouth among illegal gamblers, who were advised whom to see in the poker room to place their bets.
Authorities said the ring engaged in "massive money laundering" facilitated by casino employees who would not record certain exchanges of cash and gambling chips. This is a common method of money laundering at casinos called "chip washing," Milgram said.
"It involves taking cash, turning it into chips, 'washing' the chips by betting and then turning them in, and taking cash out," she said.
Losing bettors were forced to take out loans from the ring at more than 50 percent interest to cover their losses, authorities said.
In their search Wednesday, authorities seized more than $40,000 worth of cash and Borgata chips from a safe deposit box Micali maintained at the casino. The state also obtained a court warrant freezing Micali's bank account with more than $200,000 in it.
Fear of organized crime led New Jersey to institute tight controls when legal gambling began, but regulations have been loosened over the years.
The anxieties were expressed in a now-famous speech by then-Gov. Brendan T. Byrne when he signed the law authorizing casinos on June 2, 1977: "I've said it before and I will repeat it again to organized crime: Keep your filthy hands off Atlantic City. Keep the hell out of our state!"
This is the second high-profile sports betting charge in New Jersey in the past two years. In 2006, a state trooper, NHL hockey coach Rick Tocchet and a third man were charged with running a sports gambling ring. All later pleaded guilty.