ATHENS, Ga. -- Six convenience store owners this week pleaded guilty to federal charges they conspired with an Athens-based amusement company to lease video poker machines for illegal casinos, then split the profits with the company.
Five of the store owners pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Athens, each to a single count of commercial gambling, and another defendant pleaded guilty to the gambling charge Feb. 2, according to court documents made public Friday.
The convenience store owners each face a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of probation.
The defendants were identified in the documents as Witold Piekutowski and Alap Patel, co-owners of Mac's Chevron in Baldwin, Ga.; Nimish Patel, owner of Comer BP in Comer, Ga.; Akshat Patel, owner of Tiny Town in Carlton, Ga.; Byron Sexton, owner of Country Superette in Danielsville, Ga.; and Rakesh "Rocky" Patel, owner of JP Foodmart and Shell Foodmart, both in Locust Grove, Ga..
Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said the defendants preyed on people who could least afford to lose money to gambling.
"These defendants profited not just from violating the law, but also from participating in an illegal enterprise which often times enticed money from customers who simply could not afford to lose it," Moore said in a statement released late Friday afternoon.
"The defendants preyed on people's hopes for a better life," Moore said.
The case was investigated by Athens-Clarke police and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.
In return for their guilty pleas, the defendants agreed to cooperate with authorities investigating other crimes they are aware of, and prosecutors will make the judge aware of their assistance when they are sentenced, documents state.
The defendants all admitted that they did not declare income from illegal gambling profits and will make a "good faith effort" to pay the government back taxes, interest and penalties, the documents state; they must also pay a mandatory $100,000 fine when sentenced.
According to the court documents, each of the six defendants rented video poker machines from Heritage Amusement Co., 3155 Atlanta Highway, and gave a company "route man" a percentage of the profits from illegal gambling.
If a gambler hit a jackpot on a machine and a store didn't have enough cash on hand to pay the winnings, the route man would get the money from a Heritage official and bring it to the store, the documents state.
The route man prepared collection reports of money taken in by the gambling machines for income tax purposes, documents state, "but "the collection report would only indicate 25 percent of the actual illegal profits from the locations' video gambling machines."
The illegal gambling profits were divvied up, with the store owners typically keeping 75 percent of the poker machines' earnings and the rest going to Heritage, according to the court documents.
Rakesh Patel's plea agreement provides an example of how the arrangement worked:
"(Patel) had an oral agreement with Heritage that (Patel) could call the route man if a gambler won a jackpot and (Patel's) location did not have enough cash to pay the entire jackpot," the document states.
"It was understood the route man would inform the general manager or the owner of Heritage of the jackpot winning," and they would "provide the cash and have it delivered to the location by the route man," according to the plea agreement.
Sometimes the route man would remove cash from a machine to pay a jackpot.
"Either way, it was understood that the cash would be given to (Patel) who in turn made an illegal cash payout to the video poker gambler," the plea agreement states.
All of the defendants who pleaded guilty this month remain free on their own recognizance and are scheduled to be sentenced June 1.
Though each defendant "aided and abetted" Heritage in profiting from illegal gambling, no one from the amusement company has been charged.
A grand jury is expected to consider charges against Heritage officials and employees next week in U.S. District Court in Macon.