|The late Mafia kingpin|
John Gotti, of the
Certain urban areas in the Deep South, especially Atlanta and Miami, are known to host crime-family operations. But a possible Mafia influence in the relatively sedate college town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama? Most Americans probably would not expect to see that. But two political figures--both conservatives, with deep roots in The Machine culture surrounding the University of Alabama--have a business relationship with a man who, according to law-enforcement officials, has ties to the Mob.
Republican operative Jessica Medeiros Garrison and her former husband, Tuscaloosa city councilman Lee Garrison, are partners with a man named Erik Davis Harp in a real-estate venture called Margaritaville, LLC. The company was formed in 2004, with a registered office address of 1201 Greensboro, Avenue, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401.
Harp's business pursuits, however, appear to go well beyond real estate. He was one of 30 people indicted in October 2009 in connection with what one press outlet called "a gambling ring with ties to organized crime." Harp was 36 years old at the time of the indictment, and his address was listed as Las Vegas, Nevada. But his roots are in Tuscaloosa, and he apparently met the Garrisons while all three attended the University of Alabama.
Should the public be concerned about this? Well, the Garrisons are significant political players in our state. Jessica Garrison served as campaign manager for Luther Strange's successful 2010 campaign for attorney general and now works for the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and the Balch Bingham law firm. Lee Garrison has served on the Tuscaloosa City Council since 1997 and currently is running for chair of the Tuscaloosa City School Board, with that spot to be determined in municipal elections tomorrow.
For good measure, the Garrisons are no strangers to controversy. Jessica Garrison and Luther Strange have engaged in a long-running extramarital affair, and she recently hired attorney Bill Baxley to threaten me with a lawsuit for reporting on the matter. Meanwhile, a photograph surfaced last week of Lee Garrison wearing a "penis nose" costume at a Halloween party in 2003.
What does all of this say about the Garrison's judgment? Perhaps that question is best left to voters and the general public. But the Garrisons' ties to Erik Davis Harp might be hard to sweep away.
After all, it's not as if Harp was indicted in a small-time gambling operation; law-enforcement officials say the international sports-betting ring, with servers in Panama, generated more than $20 million a month. Also, Harp was not a peripheral figure; authorities say he and a Farmington, New York, man named Joseph J. Fafone oversaw the entire operation.
A 38-month investigation, called Operation Betting It All, produced evidence that Harp has connections to hard-core criminals. From a press release, quoting Queens, New York, district attorney Richard A. Brown:
“The defendants are accused of operating an incredibly lucrative gambling operation – taking in more than $20 million a month, on average. Such unlawfully earned profits are often – and easily – diverted to more insidious criminal enterprises. In fact, the investigation uncovered evidence that the enterprise had links to both the Gambino and Genovese crime families.”
A report at ny1.com identifies Fafone as an associate of the Gambino family and describes him delivering more than a half million dollars in winnings to one gambler. Fafone's No. 1 associate in the enterprise, it appears, was Erik Davis Harp . . . originally from Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
Some of the suspects allegedly belonged to the Gambino crime family, including Joseph Fafone, seen above, who was arrested yesterday at an airport in Rochester, N.Y. while boarding a plane to Panama with $23,000 in cash on his person.
The alleged gambling ring made about $23 million a month on websites including BetAllSportsHere.com, BetMSG.com and BetOnline.com. While the ring was run in the city, the websites' computer servers were based in Panama.
After conducting more than two years of investigation, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that all but three of the suspects were arrested.
"The principal in this case, Gambino associate Joseph J. Fafone, personally delivered $553,000 in winnings to one of the gamblers," said Kelly. "Most proceeds were seized soon thereafter [in Long Island] when the [gambler] was stopped by the police for driving while using a cell phone."
How much dirty money was circulating through the betting ring? The New York Times helps provide the answer:
Thirty people and a corporation were indicted in Queens in connection with an offshore sports betting operation with links to organized crime that took in a “staggering” half-billion dollars in wagers, New York authorities said on Wednesday.
One can easily understand why authorities described the money involved as "staggering."
That the whole sordid enterprise has roundabout connections to Tuscaloosa--and Jessica and Lee Garrison--might also be considered "staggering."