NEW YORK (Associated Press) — One of the nation's top poker players blamed gambling for derailing his life on Thursday as he was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for a $31 million debt collection scam.
Travell Thomas, 38, a past winner of World Series of Poker tournaments, sobbed as he described how his gambling was "out of control" before he was criminally charged with running a Buffalo-based debt collection business that made false threats and representations to thousands of people nationwide from at least 2010 to 2015.
"I would spend days at the casinos," he told U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla. "I wouldn't even change my clothes."
Thomas, of Orchard Park, New York, said authorities "saved my life" when they told him he could no longer gamble.
"I didn't spend much time at the office. I spent most of my time gambling," he said before Failla announced that he must serve eight years and four months in prison, beginning in September.
Failla said Thomas preyed on financially distressed people.
"A lot of the money that was taken went to him and his enjoyment," she said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Imperatore said greed motivated Thomas and he spent the profits from his business largely on himself, including season tickets to Buffalo Bills games, gold, lavish trips, jewelry, cars, casino entertainment and gambling.
"This was Mr. Thomas living the high life," he said.
He said Thomas lied to the New York Attorney General's office to thwart their probe, allowing his scheme to last three more years until the Federal Trade Commission shut him down.
In pleading guilty in November to conspiring to commit wire fraud and wire fraud, Thomas agreed to serve as much as 15 ½ years in prison.
Failla showed him a measure of leniency but said she needed to send a message to others who wanted to scam debt-ridden people with so little to lose.
Prosecutors said Thomas taught his workers to scare debt-ridden consumers by claiming they had committed crimes and that law enforcement agencies or prosecutors would pursue them or they would face lawsuits.
"I need to inform you we are on a federally recorded line. Be advised that this recording can be used as admissible evidence," customers were told, prosecutors said.
They said he paid his employees modest wages while withdrawing nearly $1.5 million in cash from his company to fund his lifestyle.
In a release, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said Thomas "was the mastermind behind the largest criminal debt collection scheme ever charged."