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Calling their bluff?

Gambling iStock 000001239081XSmall 146x219A London borough recently secured the first prosecution for money laundering in relation to a gambling den. Dominic Lewis explains what the case involved.

On 10 April 2014, Ahmet Melin was convicted of five counts of money laundering after a trial before a jury at Wood Green Crown Court.

The offences arose out of his operation of Big Bluff Private Members Club (“Big Bluff”) as a commercial poker club, in breach of the terms of its Club Gaming Permit and in contravention of s.37 of the Gambling Act 2005.

“Big Bluff” may have been a suitable enough name, but the words “private members club” were somewhat misleading. Because of course in law there are certain restrictions on how a private members club can operate. It can not run the premises wholly or mainly for the purposes of gaming. And the premises can’t make a profit – all funds must be applied for the benefit of the members.

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Big Bluff infringed both of these rules. It was not a private members club at all, but effectively a professionally run, members-only casino.

The operation was professionally organized. And well publicized. Big Bluff had a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, they advertised in poker magazines. They would even post footage of their games online. After barely a year of operating from its Green Lanes premises, Big Bluff was successful enough and had a high enough profile in the poker world to feature as one of eight casinos staging the main events in the 2012 London Poker Festival, offering a guaranteed prizepool of £50,000.

No doubt it was a very good place to play poker.

But it did not have the licence that would have required it to operate in the way that it did. A commercial poker club requires a casino licence. Big Bluff merely had a Club Gaming Permit, allowing the playing of games of chance in premises not wholly or mainly devoted to gambling, and where no rake or levy was taken from the gaming that took place on the premises, or profit generated.

That permit had itself been granted on the basis of false representations about the true nature of the operation made by Mr Melin.

Big Bluff was established, according to the application for a Club Gaming Permit, as “for the purpose of our patrons to play games such as darts, pool, backgammon, various board and card games”. It was also said to be a fishing club.

In fact, between June 2011 and February 2013, Mr. Melin operated the premises as a commercial poker club, regularly generating weekly profits in the thousands of pounds, and sometimes in excess of £10,000 per week. These profits were then removed by Mr Melin in a number of ways, including cash withdrawals directly from the club’s bank account and bank transfers to his personal account. The prosecution contended that it was reasonable to conclude that a considerable amount of the money taken from Big Bluff by Mr Melin was used for his own purposes.

The prosecution was brought by the London Borough of Enfield for money laundering offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (rather than summary-only offences under the Gambling Act 2005) due to the scale of the operation – withdrawals and transfers from the club’s bank account totaling around £400,000 featured on the indictment – and the fact that Mr Melin had deliberately set about to deceive the local authority as to the purpose of the club when the application for the Club Gaming Permit was made.

The referral that led to the investigation was made by the Gambling Commission, which also assisted during visits to the premises. I presented the case at trial, instructed by Catriona McFarlane at the London Borough of Enfield. The officer in charge of the investigation was Charlotte Palmer. The financial investigation officer was Wesley Stevens, who will now conduct the confiscation investigation.

The charges were drafted following an early conference with all the key participants – officers, local authority lawyers and counsel – present. That meant that from the outset of the court proceedings there was a coherent strategy that all understood and could work towards. The advantage of focusing on the financial aspects of the case was twofold: it meant, firstly, that the scale of the operation could be reflected in the sentence imposed; and secondly that the confiscation investigation could proceed more smoothly.

Dominic Lewis is a barrister at 5 Paper Buildings. He appeared for the London Borough of Enfield.

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