The Cautionary Tale Of A Big-Time Bracket Bust

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Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, right, and Denzel Valentine of Michigan State played in Friday's East Regional Semifinal of the 2015 NCAA tournament in Syracuse. If you've got money riding on this year's NCAA tournament, you might want to hear about what happened to John Bovary's football pool. (Getty Images)
Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, right, and Denzel Valentine of Michigan State played in Friday's East Regional Semifinal of the 2015 NCAA tournament in Syracuse. If you've got money riding on this year's NCAA tournament, you might want to hear about what happened to John Bovary's football pool. (Getty Images)

About 25 years ago, John Bovery started a modest football pool out of his home in New Jersey. It had 57 participants, all friends and co-workers.

But thanks to word of mouth — and the multiplying factor of email — Bovery's pool grew to staggering proportions. At one point, it got too large for Bovery to handle himself, so he contacted a software company to custom-build something suited to his needs.

By 2009, it included more than 8,000 entries from people around the globe, with a total payout of more than $800,000.

The following year, the New Jersey police raided Bovery's home, seized all the money in his house and his bank accounts — something called civil forfeiture, when assets are confiscated by the state because they're believed to be connected to illegal activity — and sent him to jail.

"They said, 'Make it easy on yourself, give us the betting slips and the cash,' " Bovery recalls. "And I said, 'There is no cash in this house; it's all checks. And there's no betting slips. I'm not a bookie.' "

Five months later, Bovery was arrested on money laundering charges and spent 25 nights in jail.

One of the main questions in his upcoming criminal trial is whether or not Bovery took a fee for his services. "This did not get started as a venture to make any money, OK?" he says. "This was a guy who had an idea to have fun with 50 guys at work and [it] took a life of its own. Yes, at some point in time when people won, they said, 'Hey, don't forget about taking care of Bovery, he spends a lot of hours running this pool for us, you know, take care of him.' And people started giving me something at the end of the pool. It was always at the discretion of the players or the winners, and we referred to that as a gift."

Now, he says, he's "just hanging in there till the finish line." His teacher certification was temporarily revoked, and he says it's hard to find a job with pending charges. His case is scheduled for June; if convicted, he says, he could face 10 to 20 years in jail.

New Jersey's Monmouth County prosecutor's office declined NPR's interview request, but offered this statement: "There is always more than one side to a story. The State looks forward to presenting its evidence to the jury in June. Stay tuned."

Marc Edelman, an expert in gaming law at New York's Baruch College, helps explain the prosecutor's side of things.

"It's illegal to operate a contest with entry fees and prizes if that contest is deemed to be one of chance," he says. "And most of the time, it's been presumed that anything involving picking the winners of actual sports games is a contest of chance. Maybe the law's silly, maybe it shouldn't exist, but under the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, this seems to be a clear violation."

He's not saying John Bovery will lose in court; there are many avenues of defense available. But according to the letter of the law, his football pool — like many of the basketball pools going on right now in this country — was illegal.

If you're the one holding the money in your office's March Madness pool, you might find this a cautionary tale. But as to the question of whether or not your brackets are safe, Edelman says there is some wiggle room.

"Many, but not all, states have what's known as 'recreational gaming exceptions,' " he says. "The recreational gaming exceptions are what allow a group of six to eight friends to get together and have a poker game within the privacy of their own home, but prevents you from opening up your home to offer a poker game to the outside public."

So if you keep it small and private, don't sweat the cops. At least, not much.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're the one holding the money in your office's college basketball pool, let the story of John Bovery be a cautionary tale. About 25 years ago, he started a modest football pool out of his home in New Jersey - 57 participants, all friends and coworkers. But thanks to word-of-mouth and the multiplying factor of email, his pool grew to staggering proportions. At one point, it got too large for Bovery to handle himself, so he contacted a software company to custom-build something to his needs.

JOHN BOVERY: I can remember the owner saying there's nobody out there that has a pool with 2000 people in it. What are you talking about? Well, two years later, I called him back when I had 4,300 people, and he apologized. He said one of my neighbors plays in your pool now.

RATH: By 2009, it had more than 8,000 entries from people all over the world, a total payout of $839,000. The next year, Monmouth County, N.J., police raided John Bovery's home, seized all the money in his house and his bank accounts - something called civil forfeiture - and sent him to jail. One of the main questions in his upcoming criminal trial is whether or not Bovery took a fee for his services.

BOVERY: This did not get started as a venture to make any money, OK? This was a guy who had an idea to have fun with 50 guys from work and took a life of its own. Yes, at some point in time when people won - say hey, don't forget about taking care of Bovery. He spends a lot of hours running this pool for us, you know, take care of him. And people started giving me something at the end of the pool. It was always at the discretion of the players or the winners, and we refer to that as a gift.

RATH: So tell us about what happened at your home the day that your home was raided.

BOVERY: Wife called me to tell me to come home. I get home. I park. They jump out of a van in front of my front door, handcuff me, bring me to my front door, put me in my recliner, literally yank every box, everything out of the closets, throw them on the floor - including pulling the shelf down that we had to repair. And they just went through every aspect of the house as they said make it easy on yourself, give us the betting slips and the cash. I said there is no cash in this house. It's all checks. And there's no betting slips. I'm not a bookie.

RATH: And of course, the money from the pool was seized by the police, right? What exactly did they take?

BOVERY: The bank accounts - oh, and any cash we had laying around the house. They took $300 of my wife's bowling money out of her underwear drawer. They took a couple hundred dollars we had here and there for - on the table to pay bills, right? But they primarily seized the account - $846,000 - that was personal money, $124,000 - player money, $722,000.

RATH: And you went jail for how long?

BOVERY: Well, that's five months later that happens. They arrest me out my front door on money-laundering charges - $250,000 cash bail, which normally is reserved for manslaughter or murder. No 10 percent option for my family to get me out by bond, right? And I spent 25 nights in jail, meeting people I should've never met in my life.

RATH: Now, your day in court for this is scheduled for June for the criminal part of this. What's the worst-case scenario? I mean, could - what happens if you're found guilty on all counts and get the maximum sentence?

BOVERY: Ten to 20 years in jail.

RATH: And John, tell us about how your life has changed since that raid in 2010.

BOVERY: First-degree felony charges, you can't get a job pumping gas for $10 an hour at Wawa. I don't know if you have Wawas out West, all right? My teacher certification was temporarily revoked until this outcome. Having pending charges I learned is worse than having actual closed-case charges. I worked for a limousine company driving a $60,000 Cadillac picking up people to go to the airport for business trips. For four weeks, before they did a background check - and they said if you were convicted of a first-degree felony, we can let you stay working, but because it's pending, we have to let you go.

Man, somebody's got to explain that reverse logic to me. If that doesn't sound like guilty 'til proven innocent, then I don't know what does. But family and friends have stepped up. My wife is a school teacher. She's taken a second job in retail. And we don't have enough money to pay all our bills every month, but friends have helped us. And we're just trying to hang in there 'til the finish line and see where this takes us.

RATH: That's John Bovery. The almost $800,000 people had wagered on his football pool was seized by police back in 2010, and he's scheduled to stand trial in June. New Jersey's Monmouth County prosecutor's office declined our interview request. But they did offer this statement (reading) there's always more than one side to a story. The state looks forward to presenting its evidence to the jury in June. Stay tuned.

To help understand the prosecutor's side, we reached out to gaming law expert Marc Edelman of Baruch College, who put it this way.

MARC EDELMAN: It's illegal to operate a contest with entry fees and prizes if that contest is deemed to be one of chance. And most of the time, it's been presumed that anything involving picking the winners of actual sports games is a contest of chance. Maybe the law is silly and maybe it shouldn't exist, but under the Professional and Amateur Sport Protection Act, this seems to be a clear violation.

RATH: He's not saying John Bovery will lose in court, though. There are many avenues of defense available. But according to the letter of the law, his football pool, and many of the basketball pools going on right now in this country, are against the law. But as to the question of whether or not your brackets are safe, Edelman says there is some wiggle room.

EDELMAN: Many, but not all states, have what's known as recreational gaming exceptions. The recreational gaming exceptions are what allow a group of six to eight friends to get together and have a poker game within the privacy of their own home, but prevents you from opening up your home to offer a poker game to the outside public.

RATH: So if you keep it small and private, don't sweat the cops - at least not much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.