As detailed by Legal Sports Report last week, the Department of Justice unsealed three indictments against a range of New York-based individuals including some alleged to be associated with the Colombo organized crime family.
The indictments cover a wide range of charges, many of which are common to organized crime indictments, but the one against Benjamin Bifalco is rare. The indictment charges that Bifalco and others attempted to bribe NCAA Division I men’s basketball players to fix a game.
The details of the alleged fix attempt
Details of the alleged fix remain pretty scant. We know from the one-paragraph indictment that the alleged scheme to fix the basketball game took place in December 2018. We also know that Bifalco launched the scheme from within the Eastern District of New York, which means the scheme most likely originated from Kings County (Brooklyn), Queens, Richmond County (Staten Island), Long Island, or Suffolk County.
We know that the information regarding the fix was obtained via a wiretap. That does not provide us details on which team or teams might have been implicated or if there was a plan for this fix to take place at a specific venue like Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
We are also able to presume that the fix was unsuccessful. This we decipher from the Bifalco indictment, which notes that the accused is charged only with attempted sports bribery. We can presume that had the fix been successful, the defendant would have been charged with the completed offense of violation of the Sports Bribery Act.
What is the Sports Bribery Act?
Passed in 1964, the Sports Bribery Act is a statute designed to implement a means for the federal government to target individuals (most often organized crime) who manipulated the outcomes of sporting events.
The statute came on the heels of a number of high-profile match-fixing scandals involving college basketball including the 1950-51 point-shaving scandal that involved defending NCAA basketball champions City College of New York. The scheme was so large that it spread to a number of schools including the University of Kentucky.
The act was designed to provide a tool for federal officials to target money-making businesses that were orchestrated by organized crime. The law came in the era of the Wire Act but predated the federal government’s most wide-ranging anti-organized crime statute, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
The meat of it
The act itself is actually a fairly narrow statute:
Whoever carries into effect, attempts to carry into effect, or conspires with any other person to carry into effect any scheme in commerce to influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest, with knowledge that the purpose of such scheme is to influence by bribery that contest, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
Notably, the statute does not require any relationship to gambling, though gambling has been a factor in nearly all of the reported decisions (the 2002 ice dancing scandal indictment did not allege gambling as a motivation.)
While there have been a number of high-profile investigations under the auspices of potential Sports Bribery Act charges, few cases have generated reported decisions. The most frequently implicated sport has been horse racing.
The Boston College point-shaving scheme involving Henry Hill in the late 1970s did result in Sports Bribery Act charges for Jimmy Burke (Jimmy Conway in the film “Goodfellas.”)
What can we learn from the other indictments?
The other indictments do not include Sports Bribery Act charges.
The primary indictment, which lists 16 defendants, indicates that one of the named defendants is accused of violating the Wire Act in the same month (December 2018) as the alleged fix, as well as September of this year.
Several defendants have also been charged with the extortionate extension of credit in association with acts that took place in December 2018, a charge that is likely associated with the illegal operation of a bookmaking operation.
The primary indictment includes a number of Travel Act charges, a statute which principally makes it illegal to engage in interstate vice crimes, including gambling.
The third-related indictment charges Anthony, Nicholas, and Joseph Bosco with Travel Act violations related to extortion and the operation of, or conspiracy to operate a bookmaking business. The gambling offenses alleged include a violation of the Wire Act, as well as violation of New York state gambling law.
The relevant activities are alleged to have occurred between November 2018 and January 2019, which overlaps with the alleged attempted match-fixing incident, though it is unclear if they are related in any way.
What do we know?
There are obviously a lot of moving parts in these just-unsealed indictments. They were filed September 26 and unsealed October 3. There are a number of John Doe listings; in some cases, this may indicate future indictments are still to come or that there are cooperating witnesses.
At this point we simply do not know. Whether we learn more from this case is uncertain, as it is unclear what position the defendants will take with respect to these charges.
In the meantime, Bifalco is free on a bond set at $200,000, but Bifalco and the government have filed a statement indicating they are in plea negotiations. That means we may never know the details of the alleged attempted fix.
We did learn that this investigation was not apparently detected by any particular sports league, or algorithm-employing integrity monitor. Instead it was detected by old-fashioned police work and surveillance. Given the multiple charges relating to the Wire Act, it remains clear that the illegal market still has a strong grasp on sports betting in this country.
Sleep with one eye open
We learned that match-fixing is a threat to sport in America. This is the first known attempt post-PASPA to manipulate a sporting event, but we know that most match-fixers do not fix single games, or fix one and stop.
State politicians have been distracted by the shiny monikers attached to the taxes that sports leagues have demanded (whether integrity fees or official league data) and generating revenue through unnecessarily high licensing fees. This whole neglecting to provide resources to actually fight integrity threats like prioritizing money for combatting illegal gambling fails to address the issue.
As resources are stretched ever-thinner and attention diverted from eradicating the illegal gambling market, it seems likely we are on the verge of a major match-fixing incident if we have not experienced one already.