ST. JOHN’S, Antigua — To hear US Representative John F. Tierney tell it, there was nothing unusual three years ago when he and his wife traveled to this tiny Caribbean island 300 miles east of Puerto Rico for dinner with his brother-in-law Robert Eremian.
“Dinner at my wife’s brother’s house. I don’t think that people would think that’s extraordinary,” Tierney said at a recent news conference.
But Eremian was no ordinary brother-in-law. A convicted drug smuggler and tax evader, Eremian had been under investigation, under indictment, or on probation for activities related to illegal gambling almost continuously since 1995. And, as the couple ate dinner on the patio of Eremian’s gated home that fall night, Eremian and his sister were in deep trouble.
Prosecutors were closing in on a 442-count federal indictment against Eremian, his brother, Daniel, and two others over the massive gambling ring that Bob was allegedly running out of the house where the Tierneys dined. Patrice, who managed Eremian’s US bank account, had collected and distributed at least $7 million in Eremian’s funds, prosecutors say, though she said she had no knowledge that the money had come from illegal activity.
But despite the key role of his wife in her brother’s affairs, and the looming indictments, Tierney insists that he had no inkling that night of the trouble ahead, believing Eremian was a legitimate software consultant. He said he never discussed the illegal gambling enterprise, Sports Off Shore, with him, and never discussed details of his wife’s work for her brother with her.
Within a year, Bob Eremian was a fugitive from justice and Tierney’s wife, Patrice, was facing prison time after pleading guilty to helping Eremian file false tax returns and being “willfully blind” to the fact that the source of the money was illegal gambling.
Now, John Tierney’s family crisis is threatening his political future as voters ask what the Salem Democrat knew — or could easily have found out — about the rampant lawbreaking by his relatives.
The eight-term congressman is facing a tough reelection fight against Republican Richard Tisei, who has made the illegal doings of Tierney’s brothers-in-law a campaign issue. Meanwhile, Tierney is fending off accusations from Bob and Daniel Eremian that he “knew everything” about their betting operation.
Tierney steadfastly denies the allegation, saying that he had no idea of the scope of his wife’s involvement with Bob Eremian’s finances and no suspicion that Bob and Daniel had returned to illegal gambling until shortly before they were formally charged with racketeering, money laundering, jury tampering, illegal Internet gambling, and other crimes in August 2010.
“Let me be 100 percent clear,” he said during a sometimes-contentious news conference earlier this month. “As I have said numerous times and consistently from the beginning, including the first day any news broke on this, I believed at that time that my brother-in-law was working in a legitimate, legal online gambling business in Antigua.”
But a Boston Globe review of court records and other publicly available information shows that John Tierney had ample reason to be wary of his brothers-in-law during his 15 years of marriage to their sister and many opportunities over the last decade to learn that their Antigua-based gambling business was illegally targeting American gamblers.
In fact, John Tierney had reason to be suspicious from the day he married Patrice. At that point, Bob Eremian had fled to Antigua to escape federal prosecution for illegal sports book-making, and had recruited one of Patrice’s children, John Chew, to work with him. After a lengthy federal investigation, Bob Eremian pleaded guilty to tax evasion in the gambling case in 2002.
Similarly, the most recent investigation of the Eremians was hardly a closely held secret. It has been well known among their Massachusetts associates at least since 2006, when state troopers raided the home of Bob Eremian’s main US debt collector, a childhood friend of John Chew.
Long before the 2010 indictment, more than a dozen Massachusetts residents, including Chew, testified about the gambling ring before a secret grand jury.
There is no direct evidence Tierney knew of the inquiry, but there is ample reason for his critics to wonder how he could not have caught wind of it.
Tierney has said he had no idea how much money his wife was managing for her brother, telling the Salem News last year that “I couldn’t tell you if there was $5 going through there or $500. It was her family’s stuff.”
That means he never discussed with his wife the fact that she was managing more than $1 million a year of her brother’s money, sometimes writing large checks to a shell company that prosecutors say allowed Bob Eremian to launder gambling profits.
She also kept track of which Eremian associates were using his four season Red Sox tickets, valued at more than $40,000 — tickets that the Tierneys sometimes used.
* * *
Snow from an April Fool’s Day storm was still on the ground when John Tierney married Patrice Chew on April 6, 1997, capping a triumphant six months for the 45-year-old bachelor. The preceding November, Tierney had won a seat in Congress, defeating incumbent Republican Peter G. Torkildsen on his second try. Now, a woman he had begun dating after serving as her divorce attorney was about to become his wife.
But even as the couple exchanged vows that evening at the Lyceum restaurant in Salem, there was a dark cloud over the occasion.
By that time, Bob Eremian had done time in federal prison for his role in a drug smuggling ring that was caught with nine tons of marijuana in 1978 — ensnaring his brother, Daniel, too — and Bob was under investigation again, prompting him to move to Antigua.
And John Chew, one of Patrice’s three adult children, had joined him in an effort to elude investigators who wanted to question him about the illegal sports gambling business he had helped his uncle operate out of a room over Eremian’s garage in Lynnfield.
“The feds were on to me,” Chew said in testimony during his uncle Daniel’s trial, explaining why he suddenly departed for Antigua with $30,000 in cash two months before his mother’s wedding.
Chew testified that he was initiated into the family’s criminal enterprises early, delivering bundles of cash collected from gamblers to his grandfather, Robert G. “Big Bob” Eremian, who died in 1998.
But Chew struggled in Antigua, going and coming home twice after only a few months on each visit and falling out with his uncle. “I was drinking and drugging and gambling, and I couldn’t really get my act together,” he explained.
Tierney aides said he was well aware of his family’s gambling problems through the 1990s, but also said that he had little knowledge of his stepson’s activities, noting that Chew was an adult living on his own when he married Patrice.
In addition, Tierney drew a sharp distinction between the family’s business in the 1990s and after 2002, when Bob Eremian pleaded guilty to tax evasion and paid $58,422 in restitution to resolve a lengthy investigation of alleged illegal gambling.
After that, as a condition of his probation, a federal judge allowed Eremian to return to Antigua to serve as a software consultant to Sports Off Shore, the company run out of his home in St. John’s.
Sports Off Shore quickly prospered, generating millions in revenue from bets placed on sporting events by a large network of American gamblers — and collected by as many as 50 agents, including Tierney’s stepson. Betting on sports events outside of licensed and regulated facilities such as casinos and racetracks is illegal in the United States.
Tierney said he had no way of knowing about the scope of the business. “I don’t think anybody knew that he did have business here in the United States,” he said.
* * *
By 2003, seven years after Eremian had moved his gambling business to Antigua, the family he left behind in Massachusetts was foundering. His wife was undergoing treatment for a substance abuse problem, leaving his four children with little guidance, while his elderly mother was battling cancer.
Besieged, Eremian asked his sister to help out, and she would show her enduring loyalty to her family by spending the next six years looking after Eremian’s children, covering their expenses from an account he funded.
“My wife, Patrice, is the most loving and giving person I know,” Tierney said earlier this month. “Patrice has always worked hard to hold her fractured family together.”
Patrice also kept track of Eremian’s personal finances and gave his accountant the information used to prepare his United States tax returns — a role that would lead to her 2010 guilty plea on charges of aiding and abetting her brother in filing false tax returns.
Prosecutors said Patrice effectively — and, by her account, unwittingly — helped Eremian run his illegal gambling business in the United States. In one instance, they said, she managed real estate on Nantucket that was sold to Eremian to pay off a gambling debt.
In another, they said, she routinely sold Red Sox tickets to bookies working for Eremian and paid the Red Sox for them with money from Eremian’s illegal gambling business, writing checks totalling $170,000 over five years.
“Most of the instructions came from my brother as to where the tickets would go,” Patrice testified during her brother Daniel’s trial.
They were the same tickets that Daniel said were occasionally given to Tierney, who “sat in the boxes with bookies at Fenway Park” — an accusation that Tierney adamantly denied.
Patrice also personally benefited from her efforts to help out her brother and his family. Eremian, Patrice’s lawyer said, covered his sister’s $250 monthly lease for a Volkswagen Beetle and the price of a family cellphone plan.
Meanwhile, Patrice received at least $20,000 a year from Bob Eremian, prosecutors said.
“So were you in fact earning a living by doing this work?” a prosecutor asked her.
“No,” Patrice replied. “I was being appreciated.”
John Tierney said he knew about the gifts, but took them as tokens of appreciation for everything Patrice did for Bob Eremian and his family.
* * *
Bob Eremian stepped up his crusade against American antigambling laws in 2003, when an Antigua-based trade group he helped fund mounted a legal challenge at the World Trade Organization, charging that US law was limiting free trade. The Antigua Online Gambling Association, with Eremian’s guidance, spent $2 million to $3 million on legal fees in hopes of making it legal for companies like his to take bets from Americans over the phone or Internet. The federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which came before Congress in the summer of 2006, flew in the face of Eremian’s efforts, making it easier for prosecutors to go after online gambling sites by explicitly making it a crime to accept credit card payments or other electronic transfers for Internet bets, and enlisting US banks to help prevent those transactions. The act even called on federal officials to seek cooperation from foreign countries to target illegal gambling companies.
And Tierney voted “no,” joining the losing side in a 317-93 vote. Tierney supported the measure in a later vote, when it was tacked on to a wide-ranging measure that attracted little opposition. But he reaffirmed in an interview that he opposed the crackdown on Internet gambling.
Tierney said he was not lobbied by anyone, including his brothers-in-law, before casting his vote on July 11, 2006. He had merely researched the issue, he said, and was persuaded by Representative Barney Frank’s public argument that the government should legalize, regulate, and tax the online gambling industry instead of banning it. “I was aware of Barney’s position on it,” Tierney said, noting that several other Massachusetts members also voted “no,” and that he had voted against a similar measure in 2000. “We always do our prep work prior to a vote.”
Last year, Daniel Eremian and one of Bob Eremian’s collection agents, Todd Lyons, became the first people to be convicted of violating the 2006 law.
Tierney said in a recent interview that he saw no conflict of interest in opposing the measure, explaining that his wife was not an employee of Bob Eremian and had no direct financial stake in the vote. Patrice Tierney was merely a “signatee” on Bob Eremian’s personal bank account, he said.
Moreover, in 2006, John Tierney said, he had no reason to suspect Eremian was anything but a software consultant to a legal business called Sports Off Shore.
“He was down there doing a lawful job, as far as we knew at that time,” Tierney said. “I knew the name of the company was Sports Off Shore; whether it was for soccer or something else, I don’t know.”
* * *
Just a month before winning reelection to an eighth term in Congress, in 2010, Tierney sat at the front of a federal courtroom in South Boston and leaned forward, his hands pressed together as if in prayer, listening to his wife plead guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns.
“I take full responsibility for what my part in this was,” she said in a nearly inaudible voice.
But even after spending a month in federal prison, her ordeal was hardly over. In November 2011, she was compelled to testify as a hostile witness in her brother Daniel’s trial, where she invoked “spousal privilege” to avoid any matters that might involve her husband. During her testimony, Patrice Tierney’s lawyer successfully objected when prosecutors tried to ask if she ever discussed the legality of Bob Eremian’s business with John Tierney.
While enduring more than two hours of questioning, she refused to admit any knowledge that Eremian was doing anything illegal, insisting that she always believed he made his millions from commissions earned as a software consultant to an Internet gambling company. But she was forced to describe her “willful blindness” to her brothers’ lawbreaking in excruciating detail.
Ultimately, Daniel Eremian and Lyons were convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, and money laundering charges, while Robert Eremian and a fourth defendant, Richard Sullivan, remain fugitives in Antigua. Still, the drama continued to unfold. Last month, after Daniel was sentenced to a three-year prison term, he called John Tierney “a liar” and said Tierney “knew everything” about Eremian’s gambling operation. Days later, Bob Eremian, in a phone interview from Antigua, echoed his brother, charging John Tierney “threw my sister under the bus for his political career.”
Eremian said he could prove that Tierney knew he was running a massive, illegal gambling ring and agreed to meet with a Globe reporter to review “materials” in his possession that would make the point. But he subsequently backed off on the offer. When a Globe reporter arrived at his Antigua home unannounced — greeting him at the table where he had had dinner with John Tierney and his wife on two previous occasions — Eremian refused to answer questions.
Tierney is also eager to stop talking about the matter.
“It is frustrating to go through this again, because we are talking about a man, John Tierney, who has not been found to have done anything wrong,” said his spokeswoman, Kathryn Prael. “More than 60 articles printed by the Globe alone in the last two years continue to use insinuation and innuendo to piece together attacks on the congressman, regardless of the fact that a federal judge said he ‘was not implicated in this in any way, shape, or form.’ ”
John Tierney argues that he had no reason to suspect Bob Eremian was breaking the law either, citing a 2002 memorandum signed by US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro granting Eremian permission to return to Antigua to work as a software consultant. Tierney has said repeatedly he assumed the US Probation Office kept tabs on Eremian during his two-year probation, and “presumably went down and saw him and saw what he was doing and questioned his employer.”
But federal probation officials say they seldom travel to other countries to check on probationers because they have no jurisdiction. As a result, no one was monitoring Eremian’s work at Sports Off Shore until federal prosecutors began their investigation in 2005.
Looking back, John and Patrice Tierney don’t even agree on whether they were taken advantage of by Bob and Daniel Eremian.
In October 2010, as his wife prepared to plead guilty to the charges she faced, John Tierney issued a statement saying, “While devastated to learn that her brother might have deceived her and so many others, Patrice has acknowledged and agreed that she should have done more to personally investigate the true nature of Mr. Eremian’s business activities.”
But during her testimony last November, Patrice once again displayed her family loyalty.
“Do you agree with your husband’s statement . . . that you were a victim of your brother’s deception?” the prosecutor asked.
“No,” she replied.