Steve Friess: Iowa Lawyer’s Digging Could Rattle Sports Gambling Investigations

Written By Steve Friess on January 25, 2024
Steve Friess Iowa Sports Betting Case Filing

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State of Play is a column focusing on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

My new hero is a lawyer with a terrific name: Van Plumb.

Plumb, who represents former Iowa State University football players Isaiah Lee and Eyioma Uwazurike, is demanding answers to something I’ve been harping on for more than a year: When universities and professional sports leagues learn that athletes have bet on sports they’re not allowed to bet on and/or in locations they’re not supposed to bet on them, what kind of surveillance are they using to find out? And, more importantly, is such surveillance even legal without a court order?

In a brief this week in the Lee case, Plumb asks a judge to force Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation to show the work behind a sweeping set of indictments filed last year against more than a dozen current and former ISU and University of Iowa student-athletes in various sports. Many have not only been suspended or otherwise punished by the NCAA for having placed impermissible wagers but also charged with crimes.

Plumb has already discovered through depositions that Iowa agent Brian Sanger took it upon himself to access geofencing tools to allegedly spy on a dorm at the University of Iowa where nobody was of age to gamble. Then, he identified gambling apps being used.

He wanted to go further with that probe but was told by his bosses not to. Instead of ceasing his efforts, though, he merely shifted them to geofencing a University of Iowa athletic facility to catch student-athletes in the act.

According to Plumb’s court motion, Sanger did this “without a warrant, tips, complaints, or evidence that illegal gambling was occurring.” Sanger was allegedly able to use data gathered at the athletic facility to gain permission from supervisors to open a larger investigation that included targeting more athletics facilities at state universities, according to the filing.

In an e-mailed statement to the local NBC affiliate in Des Moines, Plumb explained:

“The Motions are the direct result of information learned during [recent] depositions, which is set forth in detail in such Motions, wherein Special Agent Sanger chose to use software that allowed him to access people’s private information without a warrant which raises Constitutional issues involving illegal searches and seizures.”

This could spell big trouble for these cases.

An opportunity to examine investigatory tactics

What’s different about the Iowa situation versus just about every other athlete gambling scandal is that it involves charges in court. And that has provided a unique opportunity to really dig into how such probes are conducted because in court you can mount a defense that provides the opportunity to examine investigatory tactics.

Typically, these matters have been handled internally — not through the criminal justice system or even the civil court system — and players for the NHL, NFL and several universities have simply accepted their punishments of suspensions or fines without so much as an appeal. The conditions of their employment or scholarships might not even give them an avenue to fight back, and players’ unions have been unusually acquiescent in not raising any rabble.

Indeed, many of the Iowa athletes have been punished by the NCAA, losing eligibility or having to sit out games.

And that might have ended it if the state hadn’t decided to go so much further. Plumb’s clients Lee and Uwazurike are charged with identity theft and tampering with court records because they used other people’s online gambling accounts — with permission! — to place their bets.

How could they know all of this?

Plumb wrote in his brief:

“The State’s argument that ‘DCI agents began to identify irregular online/mobile sports wagering activity originating from state organizations that regularly participate in sanctioned sports wagering contests’ was actually the result of Special Agent Brian Sanger conducting a warrantless search on Iowa and Iowa State’s campuses.  Special Agent Brian Sanger was given access to a tool that can invade people’s privacy.”

Sanger’s efforts let him see only that gambling apps were open in the specific places he was geofencing as well as the account numbers associated with the open apps. But that’s all.

Lawyer asks for more details

That’s why Plumb is asking for more. He wants to know how Sanger learned the identities behind the account numbers, whether bets had been made, and, if so, what the gambler wagered on. Among other documents he’s demanded:

  • All email regarding why the investigation started.
  • A list of the hundreds of accounts subpoenaed from gambling sites.
  • Sanger’s Internet search history.

In the brief, he suggests some pretty serious investigatory malfeasance that failed to provide due process or any protections for anyone not in the line of inquiry. He wrote:

“Without reasonable cause the team of Special Agents targeted more facilities as well as began requesting subpoenas to obtain account information on hundreds of private citizens private information which was also without reasonable cause. The result was the indictment of a handful of Iowa’s Student Athletes even though the privacy of hundreds had been invaded.”

The prosecution has yet to respond to the filing.

Much more transparency is needed

The problems with these probes and the severe penalties go beyond these due process questions. It also ignores the idea that the medical community classifies problem gambling as an illness and, especially on the college level, someone should be trying to help these people. Instead, they lose their educations and their livelihoods with little chance of redemption.

Take the Uwazurike case. He’s accused of using a FanDuel betting account belonging to his girlfriend to place 801 online sports wagers totaling $21,361. Four of the wagers were on Iowa State football games in which he played: Sept. 11, 2021, against Iowa and Oct. 2, 2021, against Kansas. Then, after the Denver Broncos drafted him, he allegedly bet on five Broncos games, including two in which he played.

The NFL suspended him indefinitely in July. They didn’t send him to an addiction treatment program or provide ways to show his sobriety as they probably would have with athletes shown to have drinking or drug problems.

If those are the stakes, everyone needs more transparency. And Mr. Plumb is on the case.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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