Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters, once the most successful sports bettor in the country, was sentenced to five years behind bars for masterminding a six-year insider-trading scheme with former Dean Foods Co. Chairman Tom Davis.
Walters, whose prolific wagers over four decades helped him buy seven homes and a $20 million jet, stood silently as a judge handed down the sentence Thursday in Manhattan federal court.
U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel described Walters as a rich Las Vegas celebrity who sought to exploit his relationship with Davis out of pure greed and to be seen as a winner. The gambler also left a paper trail that made his conviction inevitable, the judge said.
“Billy Walters is a cheater and a criminal, and not a very clever one,” Castel said. “The crime was amateurishly simple.”
Walters made at least $43 million on tips from Davis, his former friend and golfing buddy. He was convicted of 10 counts of fraud and conspiracy in April after a four-week trial. Jurors deliberated for about five hours and rejected attempts by his defense team to blame the scheme on Davis, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government. Davis has yet to be sentenced.
Walters was also fined $10 million. Wearing a gray suit and looking forlorn, Walters looked up at the ceiling repeatedly during the hearing and only spoke briefly before the sentence was handed down to thank the judge for reading letters that had been sent by his supporters.
After the hearing, Walters, 71, left the courthouse with a small entourage that drove off in a black SUV. Asked for comment on the sentence, he said, “Not today.” That was in contrast to his convivial remarks after the trial, when he told reporters he’d just lost “the biggest bet of my life.” Castel quoted that remark during sentencing, indicating he wasn’t amused.
The case — among the most colorful and high-profile insider-trading prosecutions in recent years — entangled pro golfer Phil Mickelson, who wasn’t accused of wrongdoing but agreed to pay back almost $1 million he earned trading on information he got from Walters.
Walters, who had bragged that he never had a losing year in his career wagering on football and basketball, will leave behind Las Vegas businesses that include golf courses, auto dealerships and car-rental agencies, with total revenue of $500 million in 2013, according to testimony from his company’s controller.
More than 100 friends and supporters wrote letters seeking leniency for Walters, including tennis great Andre Agassi, ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and professional golfers including Jim Colbert and Peter Jacobsen. Defense attorneys have suggested a prison term of about a year — a proposal that prosecutors said would send a message to the investing public that rich defendants can buy their way out of jail.
“There was never a charity in town that we ever turned down,” Walters’s wife, Susan, wrote in a letter to the judge. “There were always hard luck stories from people in Vegas and Bill could never say no.”
Reid praised Walters’s generosity toward Opportunity Village, a Las Vegas nonprofit for people with intellectual disabilities. “I do not see see how this man getting probation would, in any way, adversely affect the criminal justice system,” he wrote.
Castel said he took the letters seriously, describing a few of them in court. One explained that Walters had paid for an employee to attend his father’s funeral in Romania, while another said he surprised a worker with a family vacation and a new vehicle after her spouse was diagnosed with a fatal brain cancer that gave him months to live.
Castel refused to let Walters remain free on bail while he appeals, saying it was unlikely he would succeed. He ordered Walters to surrender to prison officials by Oct. 10.
Prosecutors portrayed Walters in sentencing documents as “unrepentant” about his role in the “brazen scheme.” The government also mocked Walters’s bid for leniency on various health-related grounds, saying his physical well-being and age concerns are undermined by his 77 visits to a San Diego golf club since 2014, including three in the last two weeks.
At trial, prosecutors described an old-fashioned insider-trading plot: Davis would tip Walters, Walters would trade on the information and either make a profit or avoid a loss. The prosecutors claimed Walters would call Davis’s disposable phone — a so-called Bat Phone, which Davis claimed he eventually tossed into a creek behind his home.
At the sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brooke E. Cucinella said Walters was “motivated by greed, and not desperation.” The scheme, she said, was driven by a “desire by Walters, who is already a very rich man, to get even richer. And it worked.”
Davis, Walters’s friend for more than 20 years, was the government’s star witness. He said he passed on information because Walters provided him with loans of almost $1 million that he needed to pay off gambling debts, cover failed investments and finance a bitter divorce.
The case is U.S. v. Walters, 16-cr-00338, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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