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THE SPREADING SCANDAL IN JAI ALAI

June 11, 1979
June 11, 1979

Table of Contents
June 11, 1979

Supersonics
Jai Alai Scandal
Team Doctors
Baseball
TV
Ballooning
  • The revival of an old racing classic was a gas, especially for the aeronauts of Double Eagle III, who rode a thermal roller coaster 617 miles to a bumpy victory

Boxing
Horse Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE SPREADING SCANDAL IN JAI ALAI

A player and three bettors were charged with fixing games, and more revelations are expected as the probe continues

By Robert Boyle

Kevin Kane, a special prosecutor in the office of Austin McGuigan, the Chief State's Attorney for Connecticut, last week obtained warrants to arrest a player and three gamblers on charges of rigging and conspiring to rig games in 1977 at the Milford Jai Alai fronton. Kane acted after Superior Court Judge Eugene Kelly, who has been sitting and will continue to sit in Hartford as a special one-man grand jury, heard testimony on widespread corruption in the sport.

This is an article from the June 11, 1979 issue Original Layout

One of those arrested was Paul Commonas, 29, a member of a gambling ring known as the Miami Syndicate, which is alleged to have won a fortune betting on rigged games at Milford in 1977. Lieutenant Richard Hurley and three troopers from the Connecticut State Police and members of the Fugitive Squad of the Dade County (Fla.) Public Safety Department arrested Commonas at his apartment in North Miami. Apprehended on the same charges were Bert Ira Caskill, Commonas' former roommate in North Miami and West Haven, Conn., and James Sobie, a gambler who, like Commonas and Caskill, bet at the Milford fronton. At week's end, the police had been unable to find Juan Guardino, a 40-year-old jai alai player and native of Spain, to arrest him on identical charges. While the arrests were under way, Leigh Somers, chief investigator for Florida's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, which is conducting its own probe into corruption in the sport, seized 250 boxes of betting records, IRS forms and tickets from the Dania Jai Alai fronton north of Miami.

The arrests ordered by Connecticut authorities are likely to be merely the first of a number that will send shock waves through Florida, Rhode Island and Nevada, where betting on jai alai is also legal, and perhaps put a fatal crimp in the sport's plans to invade Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland and about a dozen other states and two Canadian provinces. Recently, New Jersey State Senator David Friedland introduced a bill calling for the establishment of frontons in Jersey City, Camden and Long Branch, even though last year New Jersey voters turned down jai alai in a referendum. Using the standard spiel of proponents of legalized betting on jai alai and other sports, Senator Friedland renewed the call for building frontons in Jersey by claiming that the revenues the state would derive from the pari-mutuel betting would "be dedicated to helping the elderly and the medically and physically handicapped."

One difficulty with jai alai is that too many politicians who are at best overly idealistic and at worst crooked have been overseeing the game, and proper regulation of the game is almost unknown. The revelations in Connecticut are not the result of probing by scrupulous politicians but of the questions and charges raised by three men: Harvey Ziskis, a bettor who was barred under clouded circumstances from the Hartford fronton; Theodore A. Driscoll, investigative reporter for The Hartford Courant; and Professor Lester Snyder of the University of Connecticut School of Law, who served on the State Commission on Special Revenue, popularly known as the gaming commission, from October of 1976 until last March.

To call the Connecticut gaming commission inept and naive would be kind. Before inspecting one of the state's three frontons, it would alert the management of its planned visit. Until its restructuring last month by Governor Ella T. Grasso and the legislature, the commission served for the most part as a dumping ground for political hacks. The last chairperson was Mrs. Beatrice Kowalski, former head of the state's Republican Women's Club, and the last executive secretary was James Fitzgerald, a Democratic town chairman.

Legalized betting came to Connecticut in 1972, and the state now gets about $75 million a year in revenues from levies on gambling. The frontons in Hartford, Milford and Bridgeport did not open until 1976 and 1977, but from the beginning politicians have been involved behind the scenes. Indeed, the original owner of the Bridgeport Jai Alai fronton, David Friend, claimed he paid a $250,000 bribe to John Bailey, the former state and national chairman of the Democratic Party, to get the license to build his fronton. Bailey was dead when Friend made his charge, and a judge later cleared Bailey's name, but that didn't lay to rest the rumors of wrongdoing that have pervaded the sport in Connecticut and elsewhere. Now much of what was hidden is starting to emerge. For example:

•There is a logical and widespread suspicion that at least some bettors in the Miami Syndicate, who have been operating in Connecticut, Florida and Rhode Island, are merely hirelings of richer and more sophisticated criminals, who have put up the millions of dollars the Syndicate has bet and have reaped its huge winnings. In return, some Syndicate members reportedly received a salary and living expenses.

•Members of the Miami Syndicate allegedly have been cheating the IRS by inducing others, including fronton employees, to sign forms saying that the nonmembers had won some of the big bets actually placed by the Syndicate. Thus the Syndicate's bettors may have avoided moving into higher tax brackets and paying the full levies on their winnings.

•World Jai-Alai owns the Hartford fronton and four others located in Florida. A year ago, Roger Wheeler, a Tulsa oilman and chairman of the Telex Corporation, who has a reputation for honesty, bought World Jai-Alai. The previous owners had sought to peddle it to Bally Manufacturing Company, the world's largest slot machine manufacturer, which has had mob ties in the past. That deal never came about. Paul Rico, who was and is World's vice-president in charge of security, also attempted to get Jack Cooper of Miami Beach, an associate of mob boss Meyer Lansky, to buy World. A former World president, John Callahan, had underworld associations.

•Until recent months, the state of Florida, where betting at frontons has been legal for 44 years, boasted that jai alai was the cleanest pari-mutuel operation in the country. The trouble is no one ever really took a close look at the sport. As Captain Richard Sheets of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department, which has been investigating charges of criminal activities at the West Palm Beach fronton, says, "Jai alai is difficult to penetrate. It's one big fraternal organization. You have the same people—players, cashiers, bettors, mutuel clerks and management—moving from fronton to fronton. They are very clannish people, and when you have the same group operating in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Florida, there are all kinds of opportunities for fraud." Dan Bradley, division director of the Florida Pari-Mutuel Commission, puts it more bluntly in discussing gambling irregularities in Florida's 10 frontons: "It's not just at one and it's not just at two, it's at all of them."

The events that led up to last week's arrests began in 1976 when Ziskis, a resident of Newington, Conn., then 34, married, with one child, went to work at the Hartford fronton, helping to manage the food concessions. Ziskis' job required him to get the concessions ready before the fronton opened for the evening, but then he was free until after the last game. Given time to poke around, he was soon struck by the fact that a coterie of a dozen gamblers from Florida, who became known to him as the Miami Syndicate, were using sophisticated mathematical formulas to figure the odds and place bets, particularly on trifectas, in which a bettor must pick the top three players or doubles teams in the order they finish.

Ziskis' credibility as a witness on activities in jai alai is well regarded by officials of the Florida pari-mutuel division; the Courant's Driscoll, the investigative reporter who has worked most exhaustively on the jai alai case; and Professor Snyder, the most outspoken member of the now disbanded Connecticut gaming commission.

Principal among the so-called systems bettors were Rodney Woods, Ronald Werner, David Herman and Stephen Davidson. They were all in their late 20s and early 30s and usually wore casual but uniform attire—running shoes, jeans and sports shirts.

To understand how the Miami Syndicate cleaned up by betting trifectas in Connecticut, it's necessary to know how jai alai is played and bet.

In doubles (the same rules apply to singles, but doubles account for nine or 10 of the 12 games on an evening's program), pair No. 1 plays pair No. 2 to begin each game. The winners of the opening point then play pair No. 3 and so on down the line to the No. 8 pair. In most games, after each of the eight pairs has had a turn on the court, a second round begins in which the winners get two points, instead of one, for each win. The first team to get seven points wins the game.

Analyses of trifecta combinations show certain numbers rarely win. For example, an $18 box bet on 678—which covers every possible combination of 6, 7 and 8—is a sucker bet; 678, 768 and 876 almost never come in, because those teams enter the game so late. The Miami Syndicate left sucker numbers out of its basic betting system in favor of combinations that mostly involved players on teams numbered 1 through 5.

The Courant's Driscoll has calculated that the Syndicate won about $1.12 for every $1 bet, a 12% profit. By comparison, an average bettor gets a return of only 82¬¨¬®¬¨¢ for every $1 wagered', an 18% loss. That, as is reported below, Woods was able to bribe the handicapper at one fronton and that Commonas allegedly rigged games gave the Syndicate advantages that may well have increased their profit to much more than 12%.

Systems betting isn't illegal, nor, incredibly enough, were the extraordinary privileges granted members of the Miami Syndicate by the Hartford fronton. They were given their own ticket puncher, their own cashier and access to computer printouts of the betting every 90 seconds while wagering was under way. Such printouts are not usually available to the public. Mark Wiesenfeld, the assistant mutuels manager, provided the printouts because, as he later testified, he thought they were "public documents." When Hartford Jai Alai stopped Wiesenfeld from doing this, John DeWees, a ticket puncher, began providing the information.

Having the betting printouts gave the Miami Syndicate a huge advantage. With access to them, the Miami Syndicate immediately knew what other bettors were doing. The printouts, which showed how many bets had been placed on each of the 336 trifecta combinations, allowed Syndicate members to stay away from the heavily played numbers and to bet on those that were less popular. Moreover, as it turned out, the printouts permitted the Miami Syndicate to spot other systems bettors and drive them out of the game by wagering so heavily on their numbers that the payoff on them was minimal. The Miami Syndicate had such total control and such an acute sense of how to "tune" the odds that members were even able to bet just enough on a trifecta so that a win would pay less than 300 to 1. By keeping the payoff to less than 300 to 1, Syndicate members could pocket all their winnings, instead of having the IRS withhold 20%, as it automatically does on all winning tickets on payoffs of 300 to 1 or more.

Members of the Miami Syndicate did not restrict their activities to Hartford. At Bridgeport Jai Alai, the management provided a private lounge, a ticket-punching machine—on which Woods himself sometimes punched out tickets—TV monitors and computer printouts. At Milford Jai Alai, the Syndicate went even further. They are supposed to have had players in the bag, and Woods bribed Frederick Vines, the official handicapper, who puts out a tout sheet, to omit the Syndicate's favorites from his selections. At all three Connecticut locations, the Miami Syndicate had fronton employees working for them—providing such services as access to fronton vaults in which Syndicate members could store their money. In some cases, the employees made more from the Syndicate than they did from the frontons. When word of the payoffs came out, the gaming commission genteelly referred to them as "gratuities."

While working at the Hartford fronton, Ziskis observed the Syndicate's activities. He took notes on systems betting, and when the fronton opened for its second season, in May 1977, he began systems betting. Although Ziskis started with a bankroll of $15,000, he found himself short of cash within a week. Even when he bet some trifectas correctly, he made little money because the Syndicate, alerted by the printouts, covered his wagers so heavily that the odds on his choices dropped severely. Strapped, Ziskis stopped betting to raise a new bankroll and revise his system. In August, he started wagering again at Hartford. He was a winner, but on his third night a cashier accused him of running off with a winning ticket worth $478, after collecting on it at the window. "It was a setup," Ziskis claims. But the fronton barred him, alleging he had planned to cash the $478 ticket twice.

Angered, Ziskis went to see Mort Denerstein, head of security for the gaming commission. He said he had been set up and wanted to be readmitted to the fronton. He also alluded to the activities of the Miami Syndicate. Nothing came of this visit to Denerstein, who later retired from the commission but who is now reportedly being investigated in connection with a fix of the state lottery.

Ziskis soon visited the gaming commission's staff again, this time meeting with Denerstein, Racing Director Louis Fiocchi and Lieutenant Hurley of the state police. Ziskis told them about the Miami Syndicate and said he wanted back in at the fronton. He was told to get in touch with the management of Hartford Jai Alai. But when he did, Gerald Coakley, a former FBI agent who was then head of security, told him, "There's no way in hell you're coming back." Ziskis replied, "I'm going to blow the lid off the place." Ziskis asked the gaming commission staff for a hearing on his case, but nothing happened until he went to William Cockerham, who covered the commission for the Courant. Cockerham called Fiocchi, and the next day the commission announced there would be an inquiry on systems betting.

Ziskis says that Lieutenant Hurley then asked Ziskis to accompany him to the Milford fronton and point out members of the Miami Syndicate. "I showed him Woods and Paul Commonas, another systems bettor, who hadn't been at Hartford," Ziskis says. According to Ziskis, Hurley saw nothing amiss, but when Ziskis, who was allowed to bet at Milford, went back on his own, he saw a lot. "Commonas and Woods were betting a system together," Ziskis says. "They were eliminating [i.e., not wagering on] certain numbers in their betting. I listened for a couple of days and then started watching what the players were doing. This went on for a couple of weeks. I observed the statistics, and I became convinced they were betting on fixes. The players I thought were doing the fixing had been late-game players at Dania, but at Milford they were in the early games, in the 1, 2 and 3 post positions." The No. 1, 2 and 3 players in the early games on a program are usually the least skilled. Ziskis, therefore, is alleging that the best players—the ones who usually appear in the later games—were shifted around to suit the wishes of the Miami Syndicate.

In support of his charges, Ziskis cites statistics on some of the players. "Iriondo played in 20 singles games," Ziskis says. "In 14 of the 20 games, Iriondo was eliminated in Commonas' and Woods' bets, and he lost all 14 games. In the six other games, they bet heavily on him, and he had three wins and three twos. Iriondo was the leading singles player at Milford, despite those 14 losses.

"Artia played with Arana as a doubles team. In 24 games in which Commonas and Woods eliminated them from the betting, Artia and Arana finished out of the money. But for the season, they were the leading doubles team in Milford."

According to Ziskis, by fixing games and manipulating the odds, Commonas and Woods were able to take a bundle out of Milford in 1977, but the money was not theirs to keep, because they were "just fronts."

In November and December of 1977 the gaming commission held the hearing Ziskis requested, and Ziskis and his family began to get threatening phone calls. One caller told him, "You're going to wine up in the bottom of the Connecticut River in cement shoes." Ziskis says, "The commission and the state police were afraid they would be embarrassed because they had been neglectful." On the stand, Ziskis was able to reveal little of his evidence because, he alleges, "all the questions were directed around what I wanted to say."

The gaming commission hearing depicted Woods as someone who just happened to bet a mathematical system and gave fronton employees "gratuities" for their assistance, while Commonas, who said he was unable to testify because he had a cold, was portrayed simply as a very knowledgeable bettor. The hearing produced no significant results, and as Professor Snyder says, "I began to get suspicious about the sources of the millions of dollars bet by the Miami Syndicate. Woods alone was betting something on the order of $4 million or $5 million a year just in Connecticut. Who was backing these people...? I made a statement in the record that the commission hadn't gone far enough."

Given a clean bill of health, Commonas returned to Florida and began betting at the Dania fronton, which, like Milford, is owned by the Saturday Corporation. At Dania, Commonas began winning, but in February of 1978 someone blew the whistle and charged that five players against whom he had bet were in the tank. Bradley suspended the five. He promptly reinstated them after they passed lie-detector tests arranged by the Saturday Corporation.

But the charges of fixing wouldn't go away, at least not in Connecticut. While Driscoll kept investigating, Vines, the house handicapper at Milford, confessed out of the blue that he had been bribed by Woods to eliminate certain picks from his tout sheets. The evidence against Vines would have been very difficult to prove, and the suspicion is that Vines and Woods, who soon confessed to bribing Vines, were being offered up by a party or parties unknown to divert attention from what really had gone on. Pleading guilty to commercial bribery, a misdemeanor, Vines and Woods paid fines of $500 and $7,500, respectively.

In August, after Driscoll had written a story in the Courant reporting that Commonas' betting pattern at Milford was the same that he used at Dania, Professor Snyder urged the gaming commission to act. "I insisted we get the state police involved," he says. "Instead, the commission decided to have an 'in-house' investigation." After statisticians at the University of Connecticut and MIT concluded that analysis of the betting and players' records indicated games at Milford had been fixed, Snyder asked the commission to hold a full hearing to investigate the Saturday Corporation. "The commission didn't seem to want anything to come out of this," Snyder says, "and delay followed delay."

Concerned "that the whole mess might be swept under the rug," Professor Snyder resigned from the commission, but not before asking Governor Grasso for a full investigation of legalized gambling in Connecticut. The governor, who had been seeking to restructure the commission, called upon Chief State's Attorney McGuigan to appoint a special prosecutor. Kane, the Middlesex County prosecutor, was named to the job, and in March he began presenting witnesses and evidence to Superior Court Judge Kelly, the one-man grand jury.

With matters simmering in Connecticut, things suddenly—and literally—got hot in Florida. The day after last Christmas, the West Palm Beach fronton burned down. "Somebody put a match to it," says owner Arthur Silvester, a former contractor who also owns the Newport fronton, the only one in Rhode Island. The fire marshall established that arson was indeed the cause. The West Palm Beach fronton was the second of Florida's 10 frontons to have gone up in smoke in four years. In 1974 the Daytona fronton burned down in a fire listed as undetermined with a suspicious nature, and all betting records were lost. Silvester had also built that fronton. When West Palm went up in flames, Bradley said that the betting records there were also lost in the blaze.

Soon some curious facts began to emerge about West Palm Beach and Silvester's other fronton in Newport, which shared employees and players. It turned out that the insurance on the West Palm Beach fronton had been doubled to $8 million a few months before the fire occurred. Driscoll reported that Woods and Davidson of the Miami Syndicate had been in constant telephone contact with Don Roberts, general manager of the West Palm fronton, and William Fusco, the mutuels manager at both West Palm and Newport. Furthermore, before the fire, Fusco and many of the other employees at the Newport fronton, who later worked at West Palm Beach, were reprimanded by Rhode Island gaming authorities for betting on games while on the job.

Early last March, Driscoll reported that although the West Palm Beach records had gone up in smoke, there was evidence that the Miami Syndicate had gotten special treatment at the fronton. West Palm Beach officials punched out tickets for Syndicate members without bothering to collect the money. Several fronton employees, he also reported, falsely signed their names to IRS forms—the W-2 (No. 5754) forms that pari-mutuel operations are required to submit on big winners—in return for 10% of the amount won by Syndicate members.

After this Driscoll story appeared, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department, which had been told only to investigate the arson, was given the go-ahead to look into other alleged irregularities. It was a breakthrough. "For 40 years no one had taken a hard look at jai alai in the state of Florida," says Captain Sheets. He began scratching around for leads, and to his surprise he heard that not all records had been destroyed in the fronton fire. Told that they had been buried nearby, the sheriff's office obtained a warrant and a backhoe and began digging. "The first 3½ days we found nothing," Sheets says. "Then we got an anonymous call telling us to move so many feet east and north. There were the records." The documents, which include computer printouts and tickets, were sodden with rain and mixed with trash. Silvester told Rhode Island authorities that he had been given the go-ahead to bury the records, but Florida officials denied he had the written permission required to do it.

Despite the arrests in the Connecticut case, the investigations in Florida have a long way to go. "Florida is just in the preliminary stages," says Somers, who feels outgunned. "It's me and four other guys up against 37 pari-mutuel plants. I don't have the tools to work with."

It's noteworthy, however, that Somers' office acted quickly and professionally on Connecticut's behalf last week, helping with arrests and seizing the documents from the Dania fronton to prevent their destruction. Florida, it seems, is now ready to give jai alai that hard look it hasn't had in 40 years.

Thanks to Governor Grasso and the legislature, Connecticut now has a new Gaming Policy Board that will be run by an executive director. All but two of the old commission members are out. But none of this impresses Professor Snyder. "When I was appointed to the old commission, I didn't think gambling was wrong," he says. "But the basic flaw in the whole system is that the state is in gambling to make money, and therefore the state will never regulate it properly. Abuse will prevail."

TWO PHOTOSThings got hot in Florida when the West Palm fronton was torched, and in Connecticut heat was put on players—not those shown—who allegedly fixed games.THREE PHOTOSAngry bettor Ziskis and reporter Driscoll kept pressing until officials began to dig. Bearded Florida investigator Somers and aides got shovelfuls of evidence.THREE PHOTOSCommonas cashed a lot of win tickets, but he was a loser last week when police arrested him for allegedly rigging games. They seized fronton records, too.THREE PHOTOSThough Kane and McGuigan issued arrest warrants and Hurley went south to nab three suspects, Snyder is convinced that legalized gambling can't be policed.PHOTOConnecticut's gaming commission was disbanded when Kowalski and colleagues didn't do the job.