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Ex-lawmaker Sean Eberhart sentenced in casino corruption case

By meerna Jul11,2024
Ex-lawmaker Sean Eberhart sentenced in casino corruption case

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Former state Rep. Sean Eberhart was sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison on Wednesday for pushing legislation favorable to an Indiana casino company in exchange for the promise of a future job with the company worth at least $350,000 a year.

He was also given a $25,000 fine and will serve one year of probation following his release.

In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brookman sided with federal prosecutors, who requested a one-year prison term. Eberhart had sought probation with no prison time.

Brookman said public trust in elected officials is critical. “You threw that away…” Brookman said. “That makes this an extremely serious offense.”

The sentencing comes after Eberhart pleaded guilty on Nov. 28 to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, a felony that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years of probation.

As part of a plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence at the low end of the advisory range. Eberhart also agreed to pay $60,000 in restitution to the state, an amount roughly the same as his annual compensation as a lawmaker.

During Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Eberhart sat mostly motionless at the defense table in room 288 of the federal courthouse in Indianapolis. When given an opportunity to speak, Eberhart expressed disappointment in himself and said he was fully aware of the impact of his actions.

“I am truly and deeply sorry for what I did,” he said, adding that he accepted “full responsibility.”

‘An act of corruption’

Eberhart was accused of accepting a future job offer in 2019 from an executive with Spectacle Entertainment, a gaming company that was seeking permission to move two lakefront casino licenses in Gary to more lucrative inland locations.

In exchange for the promise of future employment, Eberhart advocated for legislation beneficial to Spectacle, including an $80 million licensing fee reduction and millions of dollars in tax breaks, according to the charging information in the case.

Bradley Shepard, senior litigation counsel for the US Attorney’s Office, conceded on Wednesday that the legislation might have passed without Eberhart’s vote, but argued it wouldn’t have passed in a form so beneficial to Spectacle and detrimental to taxpayers.

“This is an act of corruption,” Shepard said.

Eberhart, a Republican, represented Shelby County and parts of Bartholomew and Hancock counties for 16 years before leaving office in 2022. He also owned a tool rental company in Shelbyville until last year.

Eberhart’s attorney, Patrick Cotter, asked the judge Eberhart’s sentence based on “the whole man, not the worst day of his life.”

Brookman acknowledged Eberhart’s success as a politician and businessman ― and asked why it wasn’t enough.

“I have to think it was simply a matter of greed,” Brookman said.

Eberhart will remain free until he reports to the Federal Bureau of Prisons at a time that has yet to be arranged. Brookman’s decision to add one day to his 12 month sentence will allow Eberhart to qualify for good-time credit that could reduce his time served by as much as 15%. Sentences must exceed one year to qualify for good-time credit.

Will others be prosecuted?

The conclusion of Eberhart’s case leaves lingering questions about the fate of those with whom he allegedly conspired. Shepard of the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on whether additional people might be prosecuted as part of the years-long investigation into ties between casino executives and Statehouse officials.

The Spectacle executive who allegedly conspired with Eberhart is not identified by name in court records, but a description of the executive as the creator of Spectacle and the primary owner of its predecessor company, Centaur, fits the profile of Rod Ratcliff, who led both companies until he was banned from Indiana’s gaming industry in 2021.

At the time of Eberhart’s crime in 2019, Ratcliff was one of the state’s most powerful gaming executives. Ratcliff has not been charged with any crimes.

Gaming the system: Inside the rise and fall of Indiana’s casino king

Federal prosecutors also identified Ratcliff as a conspirator in another alleged scheme to illegally funnel casino cash to a former state senator’s congressional campaign. Ratcliff has not been charged with any crimes related to that case, either.

In court records filed in Eberhart’s case, prosecutors that the evidence against Eberhart included covert recordings, but whether those recordings implicated any other Statehouse figures is unclear. Eberhart’s plea deal and a sentencing memo filed by prosecutors last week are silent on whether he has cooperated with investigators.

Eberhart is the 4th person prosecuted for casino-related crimes

Eberhart’s sentence is the longest so far among the four people who have been prosecuted as part of a wide-ranging and long-running probe of casino influence at the Indiana Statehouse. Here are the others.

  • John Keelera former lawmaker and Marion County Republican Party chairman who worked as general counsel for Centaur and Spectacle, was indicted in 2020 and accused of using fake contracts with a Maryland political consultant to secretly funnel casino cash to political campaigns. He pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return and was sentenced to two months in federal prison in 2022.
  • Brent Waltza former state senator, was instructed alongside Keeler. Federal prosecutors said he accepted more than $40,000 in illegal casino campaign contributions funneled through the Maryland political consultant during an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2015. The casino cash was then used to reimburse individual donors who contributed to Waltz’s campaign. Waltz pleaded guilty to receiving conduit campaign contributions and lying to the FBI. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
  • Kyle Wagonera former Centaur executive, quietly pleaded guilty in state court for making an illegal campaign contribution. Marion County prosecutors declined to provide any additional details about the case after striking a plea deal with Waggoner in 2021 that resulted in no prison time. But IndyStar found that Waggoner appears to have contributed at least $5,000 through a close friend to Sen. Mark Messmer. Messmer, who is now the Republican nominee for Congress in Indiana’s 8th district, has denied knowing the source of the contribution. He has not been charged with any crimes.

Contact IndyStar reporter Tony Cook at 317-444-6081 or [email protected]. Follow him on X: @IndyStarTony.

By meerna

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