Tocchet put on leave

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet, who is at the center of a New Jersey State Police investigation into an illegal bookmaking operation, was granted an indefinite leave of absence by the NHL after meeting with league commissioner Gary Bettman last night.

Tocchet allegedly helped finance the New Jersey-based sports betting operation and faces gambling-related charges along with two other men, including a New Jersey state trooper.

"We view the charges against Mr. Tocchet in the most serious terms," Bettman said in a statement. "We have pledged our full cooperation to the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. While we are conducting our own investigation, we have made clear to the law enforcement authorities in New Jersey that we will do nothing to interfere with their ongoing investigation."

Tocchet met with Bettman and Robert Cleary, a former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey who has been retained by the league to conduct an internal investigation.

In a statement, the league said that Tocchet, on the advice of counsel, was not prepared to answer specific questions about the allegations.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey investigation could widen to include charges against others associated with the NHL if it were found that their involvement went beyond placing wagers with the betting ring.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice said placing bets is not illegal in that state, but activities that further a betting operation, such as passing on a bet to an illegal bookmaker or even referring a friend or acquaintance to a bookmaker, can be violations.

Police have said some of the clients of the New Jersey-based gambling ring, which handled more than $1 million in wagers mostly early this year, included a number of persons closely associated with the NHL.

"We're now trying to identify who were bettors, and they will be contacted and interviewed," said John Hagerty, a spokesman for the state's Division of Criminal Justice.

In some instances, such cases take on a broader sweep as witnesses and potential defendants inform on each other.

Law enforcement officials have declined to identify the NHL personalities they suspect were betting clients. Phoenix coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky said in a televised interview Tuesday night that he was not involved and expressed surprise when asked if his wife, actress Janet Jones, had connections to the betting ring, as reported earlier in the day.

Last night in a statement, the NHL said New Jersey authorities had informed the league that there were no indications that the sports betting involved hockey games. Police have said the wagers were mostly on football and basketball.

"This is a gambling investigation, not a fixing investigation," Hagerty said.

Hagerty emphasized that the investigation announced Tuesday, in which Tocchet, a New Jersey state policeman and another New Jersey man were accused of a variety of gambling-related offenses, is in its early stages.

"This is the first step in a very long and very complicated process," Hagerty said. Eventually, the charges will be presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether there is sufficient probable cause to issue indictments.

Tocchet's lawyer is quoted on ESPN.com as saying accusations that the former player financed an illegal gambling operation with organized crime are false.

In a summons dated Feb. 5 and announced Tuesday, Tocchet, 41, who played with six NHL teams from 1984-85 through 2001-02, is charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy.

Similarly charged were the state trooper, James J. Harney, 40, of Marlton, N.J., and James A. Ulmer, 40, of Swedesboro, N.J. Harney also is accused of official misconduct. Both were arrested and released after posting 10 percent of $100,000 and $50,000 bail, respectively.

The offenses the three face are considered second-degree crimes in New Jersey and are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Tocchet is not required to surrender to authorities, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice. A judge will issue a date for Tocchet to appear in court, but the coach can waive that appearance and simply post bail.

At some point, all three could face arraignment, which in New Jersey provides an opportunity for defendants to be further notified of the charges they face.

According to warrants served on Harney and Ulmer and a summons issued to Tocchet, the gambling ring operated from 2001 until late January or early February of this year. Police documents describe 594 bets taken by the ring amounting to $1,086,100 from Dec. 29, 2005, to Feb. 5, 2006. Those familiar with bookmaking operations say that profits usually range from 3 to 10 percent of the total amount wagered.

The investigation, named "Operation Slap Slot," began in late October 2005 when police learned that Harney, an eight-year veteran of the state police, was operating a betting ring. Undercover police successfully placed wagers with the ring. Police also said the investigation revealed ties to organized crime in Philadelphia and South Jersey but provided no specifics about that connection.

The league announced that conditions of Tocchet's leave of absence include having no contact with members of his team or the league, that the leave will not end without Bettman's consent, and that the commissioner can modify the terms of the leave.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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