Asset Forfeiture

Georgia Prosecutors Seized a Crab Shack Over Gambling Charges. A State Supreme Court Ruling Could Decide the Fate of Gaming in the State.

Prosecutors are hiring private attorneys to pursue asset forfeiture charges against establishments that offer coin-operated gaming.

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It's been more than four years since Georgia authorities raided Captain Jack's Crab Shack and arrested the elderly owners, Ronnie and Lee Bartlett, on commercial gambling violations. Since then, the couple has lost their businesses, declared bankruptcy, and Ronnie Bartlett, 75, has been wearing an ankle bracelet for the past two years. 

Prosecutors insist the Bartletts operated illegal video gambling machines out of their Macon-area restaurant and gave illicit cash payouts to winners. However, the Bartletts' attorneys say prosecutors have been shaking down businesses like Captain Jack's Crab Shack for more than a decade by hiring private attorneys who specialize in civil asset forfeiture to go after their money.

Now the Georgia Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the crab shack was a den of iniquity or a legitimate business under state law. Its decision could vindicate prosecutors who've targeted gambling in the Peach State, or it could throw into question the legitimacy of dozens of similar cases, many of which involved the seizure of millions of dollars.

In the meantime, one of the Bartletts' lawyers says the elderly couple has been impoverished.

"Their lives have been devastated," says attorney Chris Anulewicz. "Their businesses have been taken away. They've basically been made paupers. And then my poor guy has had to wear an ankle bracelet for two years. He's confined to his home county, pending this decision by the Georgia Supreme Court."

The Bartlett case, besides having huge implications for the couple, is also a proxy in a larger fight in Georgia between local prosecutors and operators of "coin-operated amusement machines."

Commercial gambling is illegal in Georgia, but there is an exception for video gaming machines that include an element of skill. Usually they are like slot machines but require players to press buttons to create winning combinations. Cash payouts are forbidden; winners must instead be given in-store credit or merchandise. There are roughly 22,000 such machines scattered through Georgia in gas stations, convenience stores, laundromats, and other businesses. Each one is licensed by the Georgia Lottery Commission and connected to a system that monitors money going in and out.

In dozens of cases similar to the Bartletts', Georgia district attorneys have gone after small businesses owners and companies that lease the machines, accusing them of underreporting revenues, money laundering, and giving illegal cash payouts to players. 

In June, a multi-jurisdiction investigation led to a $14 million civil forfeiture settlement against a gambling machine company that owned machines in 130 different storefronts. In 2014, Bibb County authorities seized 10 gas stations and convenience stores in a coordinated gambling raid. In 2015, Bibb County prosecutors reached a $1.6 million settlement with another gaming company. 

The Bartletts' current legal trouble started in May 2015, when law enforcement agents raided Captain Jack's Crab Shack. Michael Lambros, a special assistant district attorney hired by Macon District Attorney David Cooke, filed a civil forfeiture complaint against the Bartletts under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, seizing their businesses along with $24,000 in cash, and freezing their bank accounts.

Most defendants in these cases opt to settle, forfeiting hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars to avoid criminal prosecution.

"The incentive to settle is enormous," says Paul Oleand, a Georgia attorney who said he's represented about a dozen defendants, most of them South Asian immigrants, who had their stores seized and bank accounts frozen in gambling machine cases prosecuted by Lambros.

"I had a client one time who had an investment account that he was using to pay for his daughter's tuition to go to Georgia State, and they froze that," Oleand says. "It's almost impossible for ordinary folks to be able to fund their defense and pay mortgage and make payroll and everything else when their assets are frozen."

All of Oleand's clients settled, but the Bartletts fought back. In 2016 they filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that Cooke and Lambros directed the raid on their restaurant, seized their cash and businesses, froze their bank accounts, and forced them into bankruptcy, despite knowing the machines in Captain Jack's Crab Shack were state-licensed and perfectly legal. 

The suit claims prosecutors knew when they secured a warrant for the raid that there was no evidence to support allegations of money laundering or under-reporting winnings, and they knew that any cash payouts "were simply a misdemeanor under Georgia law that could not support a Georgia RICO indictment or claim." 

The Bartlett's lawsuit alleges that Lambros and Cooke "typically extort a resolution with the location owners that allow [them] to keep a portion of the money improperly seized—all while threatening location owners with criminal prosecution."

Two months after the Bartletts' filed their lawsuit—and 17 months after the initial raid—a grand jury indicted Ronnie and Lee Bartlett on charges of racketeering, commercial gambling, possession of a gambling device, and keeping a gambling place. The criminal case put the Bartletts' civil lawsuit on hold, and it's been in limbo ever since. The Bartletts claim Cooke's office filed criminal charges against them in retaliation for their civil suit.

"Only after Mr. Bartlett asserted his constitutional rights in federal court did the district attorney whom he sued, indict Mr. Bartlett and his wife," Anulewicz says. "Mr. Bartlett had no choice but to fight the charges against him—because he had done nothing wrong and he did not want the same thing done to others."

A jury convicted Ronnie Bartlett in 2018 of commercial gambling violations, and a judge sentenced him to two years in prison. However, a Georgia appeals court reversed his conviction this June. 

The appeals court rejected the prosecution's argument that, by giving cash payouts to winners, the crab shack had essentially converted its games into illegal gambling machines. It found the games were bona fide coin-operated amusement machines, inspected and licensed by the Georgia Lottery Commission. Georgia law explicitly exempts such machines from the state's criminal code regarding commercial gambling, and lists cash payouts as a mere misdemeanor.  As such, the court ruled the evidence against Bartlett "was insufficient as a matter of law" to support his felony convictions.

Cooke disagrees and has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. "Really it's very plain," he says. "You can't run a slot machine in Georgia. A lot of people are standing on their heads to look at this in a skewed kind of way."

Cooke has called the machines "a cancer on our society." He says they're predatory and addictive. He also says the gaming machines are tied to bribery, tax evasion, money laundering, and illegal cash payouts. So far, investigations by Cooke's office have also snared a Bibb County sheriff's deputy and a Georgia Department of Revenue agent who was allegedly on the take.

"It looks right now like that's the tip of the iceberg," Cooke says. "There's so much money that flows through that the corruption angle is huge. When you have this much illegal cash flowing through any business, the only way to operate is to bribe public officials."

The Georgia Amusement and Music Operators Association (GAMOA), a trade group representing the industry, directed a request for comment back to the Bartletts' attorney, Anulewicz.

What Georgia prosecutors and GAMOA, which is paying much of the Bartletts' legal costs, are fighting over is not just the technical definition of a coin-operated amusement machine, but an enormous amount of money flowing out of Georgians' pockets and through the industry. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that these machines rake in an estimated $200 to $600 million a year in revenues. Court records show Captain Jack's Crab Shack netted $398,176 in profits from its machines between 2013 and 2015. 

Both sides in the Bartletts' bitter and long-running legal dispute—which in addition to the Georgia court system has wound through federal bankruptcy court and a U.S. District Court in Atlanta—accuse each other of being waist-deep in corruption.

"Defendant Lambros is paid through the improperly seized funds—in violation of Georgia law," the lawsuit continued. "Defendant Cooke creates an unaccountable fund with the revenues generated from these improper seizures, minus the monies paid to Defendant Lambros …"

In 2016, Cooke announced his office would begin posting asset forfeiture data on its website to show how much forfeiture revenue it was bringing in, as well as what it was spending that money on.

"I've never been a big forfeiture guy," Cooke says of his career as a prosecutor. "I've never been a big drug prosecution guy. I have always been, for my entire career, a violent crime guy." 

Cooke's career has been heavily focused on sex crimes and crimes against children. He was one of several Georgia prosecutors who said they would not prosecute women who violated the state's controversial anti-abortion "heartbeat" bill passed earlier this year, and his office recently announced it was expanding a diversion program to keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system. (When Reason spoke with him, he was at a conference on juvenile justice reform.)

Cooke says he began taking on gaming machine cases after hearing too many stories from people whose lives had been ruined by gambling addiction. And if he was only interested in seizing money, he argues, why would he be urging the state legislature to completely outlaw gambling machines, cutting off his most steady source of forfeiture revenue?

But for private attorneys hired by Cooke and other local prosecutors to pursue forfeitures like the one against the Bartletts, these cases have been a very lucrative venture.

When local Georgia prosecutors wants to pursue a forfeiture case against a gambling machine operator or location under Georgia's racketeering statutes, they often turn to the law firm of Michael Lambros and his partner, Andrew Ekonomou. Lambros' firm has carved out a niche pursuing forfeiture cases as contracted "special assistant district attorneys." (WRAL reported last year that Ekonomou had also been brought onto President Donald Trump's legal team.)

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors can seize assets suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner has not been convicted or even charged with a crime. That's why Lambros, acting under the authority of Cooke's office, could seize the Bartletts' businesses more than year before the couple was ever charged with a crime.

When Lambros and Ekonomou first began taking on forfeiture cases against gaming machine operators, local district attorneys guaranteed them a cut of the assets seized—up to one-third of the proceeds in some cases.

In 2012, a Georgia appeals court ruled that such overt "contingency fees" violated state public policy and called the practice "repugnant" to the principle that prosecutors should avoid the appearance of financial interest in cases.

Anulewicz claims that Lambros now simply works without written contracts and still receives lump sums in exchange for successful forfeiture prosecutions. 

In an unsuccessful motion attempting to get Lambros thrown off the Bartletts' case, Anulewicz cited public records showing that between April 2016 and August 2017, Lambros was paid $710,000 after he secured more than $3.3 million in asset seizures in Cooke's jurisdiction—far more than his hourly rate as a special prosecutor, Anulewicz said. 

Cooke says hiring special prosecutors makes sense because they have expertise in complicated forfeiture cases, and it frees up his regular prosecutors to pursue other, more serious cases.

Earlier this year, Lambros and Ekonomou were hit with another lawsuit by Noel Chua with similar allegations as the Bartletts'. Chua is a former Georgia doctor who was convicted of felony murder in 2007 for giving his housemate painkillers that contributed to his fatal overdose. In addition to charging Chua with felony murder and violations of Georgia's drug laws, the Brunswick district attorney hired Lambros as as special prosecutor to pursue a RICO forfeiture case against Chua's considerable assets. Lambros was also the court-appointed receiver for those seized assets.

Following Chua's conviction, and after a two-and-half-year public records battle, Chua's attorney uncovered a memo in the prosecution's files from his trial that advised the lead attorney to avoid impaneling any black jurors. Racial discrimination in jury selection is unconstitutional. When the memo came to light, prosecutors struck a plea deal with Chua, who was released on time served in 2017. 

However, Chua's lawsuit alleges that by the time he got out of prison, Lambros' firm had stripped him of nearly $2 million, of which only about $14,000 was remaining.

It's unclear what the Bartletts will have left if they prevail at the Georgia Supreme Court, besides Ronnie Bartlett's freedom. Their restaurants have all been shuttered for years now. Even that won't be the end of their legal odyssey, though. The Bartletts' civil suit will likely recommence either way, and the fight over a Macon-area crab shack will continue in federal court.   

Lambros did not return requests for comment for this story.

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  1. Is it really for the best to ruin the lives of everyone else to “save” those who may have a gambling problem?

    1. “Cooke says he began taking on gaming machine cases after hearing too many stories from people whose lives had been ruined by gambling addiction.”

      “Gambling addiction”, that big malevolent oaf, just shambled up to me, grabbed me by the collar, ate all my money, and then threw me into the gutter. It had NOTHING to do with my willful lack of self-discipline and good sense!

    2. He’s working to save their immortal souls. Of course it’s for the best. When has government ever done anything that wasn’t for the best?

    3. The crab shack was a little old place where
      We used to eat together
      Crab shack baby

      1. I have a Prius
        It sits about two
        So come on
        And bring your video not gambling device money!

  2. It found the games were bona fide coin-operated amusement machines, inspected and licensed by the Georgia Lottery Commission. Georgia law explicitly exempts such machines from the state’s criminal code regarding commercial gambling, and lists cash payouts as a mere misdemeanor. As such, the court ruled the evidence against Bartlett “was insufficient as a matter of law,” to support his felony convictions.

    Cooke disagrees and has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. “Really it’s very plain,” he says. “You can’t run a slot machine in Georgia. A lot of people are standing on their heads to look at this in a skewed kind of way.”

    “Honey, be careful – I heard on the news there’s an idiot driving the wrong way on I-75.”

  3. When Lambros and Ekonomou first began taking on forfeiture cases against gaming machine operators, local district attorneys guaranteed them a cut of the assets seized—up to one-third of the proceeds in some cases.

    In 2012, a Georgia appeals court ruled that such overt “contingency fees” violated state public policy and called the practice “repugnant” to the principle that prosecutors should avoid the appearance of financial interest in cases.

    Anulewicz claims that Lambros now simply works without written contracts and still receives lump sums in exchange for successful forfeiture prosecutions.

    And there’s your RICO case. Not surprising though to see one more example of how broken the criminal justice system is, they’re just vigilantes, bounty hunters, and highway robbers at this point and the law is whatever they say it is. Who cares if this was an unlawful prosecution? It’s not like it’s going to cost this prosecutor anything to get slapped down by the appeals court.

    1. That’s what I was thinking. Cooke should read the elements of the RICO statute while liking in the mirror.

    2. Since when does government have a problem using lawyers on a preratory cotingency fee basis?

      Isn’t that the business model behind the ADA, where law firms were rewarded for walking around in other businesses to find violations and get ~$8000 per?

  4. Cooke says he began taking on gaming machine cases after hearing too many stories from people whose lives had been ruined by gambling addiction.

    If *only* he had not heard that last story, he would have begun taking on Lego-tripping cases instead.

  5. Hell hath no fury like law enforcement with monetary incentives and big egos.

    1. and large economy size handguns riding on their hips. With backup and REAL assault rifles just a radio click away.
      Makes a weakling dweeb pretty bold, that setup. Especially when there is that level of cash involved.

    1. Macon is like the white part of the chicken shit on the much bigger chicken turd that is Georgia

      1. Was all that crapped out of Gainesville, the Poultry Capital of the World?

      2. Poor Chippers. I am sure he will change his tune if Georgia ever votes Blue again after all these Yankess and Granolas take over, who are moving here.

        Maybe someday we can have homeless tent cities and shit throwing bums who suffer no consequences.

        1. Well, given that rate at which the state’s prosecutors are suing people into homelessness, I think you won’t have long to wait.

  6. Back in the 1970’s, when the ‘State Lotteries’ were spreading like mold, my late Mother predicted that it would cause nothing but trouble. The lotteries would make the prohibition on gambling indefensible, while at the same time giving the government an interest in suppressing competition.

    Needless to say, those two impulses have not played well together. Add ‘Asset Forfeiture’ to the mix, and the Mob really needs to sue the government for infringement on their business model.

  7. OK, let’s pretend that the state actually has the impetus to stop people using such machines. Here’s how they should handle it:

    Send a guy in. He smiles at the staff, orders some delicious crab legs, and takes a picture of the machine while waiting. Investigation done, no one injured, cost the state maybe $50 for his time and reimbursement for lunch. Then they send in a price of mail saying, hey you need to get rid of it… And if they feel particularly evil, assess a fine. If the owners absolutely refuse or ignore you, then you give the photo to a judge to get a warrant. You send in a cop and a couple of moving guys to take the thing. VIOLA, the country is saved from the scruge of whatever.

    Instead, they wanted to play SEAL Team 6 in their tacticool gear, so they raid the place like it’s a den of terrorists or a poor citizen with a plant they don’t like. The really sad part is those agents are probably still congratulating themselves for being so brave and effective and doing good.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” – CS Lewis

    1. You apparently missed the part where the machines are State inspected and licensed. The machines are LEGAL. What isn’t legal is paying off winners with cash; it’s supposed to be with store credit of merchandise.

      This is more or less exactly how Japan’s Pachinko business is run, except you usually have to go across an alley or a couple of doors down to exchange your ‘pries’ for cash. The difference? The Japanese authorities have yet to decide that cracking down on the practice (unless it get too blatant) is worth the trouble.

      I gather they don’t have ‘asset forfeiture’ aka ‘the Sheriff of Nottingham school of government finance’.

      1. Asset forfeiture does exist in Japan but it’s pretty complicated, because the government already owns a piece of so much stuff – the rules are mostly to keep one branch of government from accidentally stealing from another, but in practice the vast extent of their government plus those rules discourages the practice.

    2. quote: “couple of moving guys to take the thing. VIOLA, the country is saved from the scruge of whatever. ”

      Hmm. maybe THATS where the Georgia music outfit came in.. when the cops identified the VIOLA that sometimes gets played as the customers are eating all that tasty crab.
      I do wonder just what “scruge” the state prosecutor is all knicker-be-knotted over. Or dod you mean to say “Scrooge”, as a send-up for this Cooke cancer, who seems to be the push on this whole racketeering game HE”S got going on?

  8. These articles make me chuckle at those folks who still believe the ‘Red State governments are ‘pure and true Constitutional conservatives’ garbage. I spent 18 years in Illinois, and even more in Georgia, and learned one universal truth: governments everywhere are predatory and capricious. As long as one citizen has two pennies to rub together, state-run organized crime will always be a growth industry.

    1. These rules and most of the current laws Georgia has were instituted by DEMOCRATS.

      Yup Democrats ran this state until about early 2000s. Sonny Perdue was the first Republican Governor since Reconstruction.

      You people crack me up. You don’t know history.

      1. He’s making a larger point, which is that government is, at base, a criminal enterprise.

        Government is like fire; if you are young, vigorous, and trained it is possible to live without it, but it won’t be comfortable. And like fire, if you keep it small, you can feed it from a reasonable stockpile. If you let it grow too large, even if it doesn’t start a firestorm you are going to spend an awful lot of time and effort providing it with fuel.

        1. While I agree with the supposed larger point he’s making, both Illinois and Georgia are democratic standard bearers. Nobody is gonna argue with a straight face that Chicago is somehow a bastion of conservative thought. If he wanted to use examples that do demonstrate his point, I think that Arkansas and Nebraska would’ve been better bets (though Nebraska has recently made a little progress with some nudging from an LP member).

  9. Now the Georgia Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the crab shack was a den of iniquity or a legitimate business under state law.

    Crab shack? Doesn’t sound Kosher to me.

    1. they are common along that part of the east coast. I’ve seen them. Nothing unusual. Not as common as Waffle House, or ChikFilA, but nothing unusual. Those Blue Crabs are VERY tasty.

  10. Cooke has called the machines “a cancer on our society.” He says they’re predatory and addictive. He also says the gaming machines are tied to bribery, tax evasion, money laundering, and illegal cash payouts.

    Sounds a lot like asset forfeiture.

    1. All things the state demands an exclusive right to.

  11. How is freezing assets prior to conviction not a violation of the 5th amendment?

    1. Well… Maybe it needs overturned on that basis…

    2. So, it’s not considered a 5th violation to seize the proceeds of a crime – if you went and stole some diamonds, they can seize the diamonds, and more saliently if you fenced the diamonds before they caught you they could seize the cash as evidence of the crime.

      Where it gets shady is as always when RICO gets invoked, because they can essentially claim that your entire wealth is “tainted” by the proceeds of unspecific crimes and thus freeze all your assets. Which most assuredly violates your constitutional right to mount an effective defense, but until recently SCOTUS hasn’t seemed interested in restraining the rapacity of prosecutors and their henchpersons. They’ve started making vague noises about it since Gorsuch joined the bench but no cases have gotten close enough to the top to be granted cert.

      1. but this poor guy had not been charged with any crime, thus “justifying” the asset seizure, until AFTER the victim of Cooke’s rage/greed filed a lawsuit in the matter.
        Now, had the guy locked up the victim’s assets ending the outcome of criminal trial, then won. THEN seized the assets, it would be clean. Coming in and cleaning the poor old guy out FIRST is the violation of law… due process. UNTIL there is a criminal CONVICTION there are no grounds for seizure.
        In this case the DA and his sweetheart outside lawyer are running the RICO operation.

        IDuring discovery in the civil case against these guys I’d be demanding ALL financial records of both of these scoundrels ALL bank accounts, every transaction in the public or state accounts, personal accounts, everything. Log every transaction between the pair. If the outside lawyer is operating off books,get the IRS after him. It is also illegal for state funded attorneys to get paid on contingency. The article mentioned him operating off books until the trial was concluded, then a lump sum payment. What was the BASIS for that payout? Hourly? Produce the time sheets for the case. This whole case is as skanky as a four dollar bill.

  12. The saying “special place in hell” comes to mind.

  13. More tar and feathers are needed in this country

  14. Cooke and his sweetheart Lambros are the cancer in Georgia. These guys have quite the RICO operation going. A full accounting of every dollar taken from this poor sap needs to be made, and then made public.

    And Cooke’s little racket needs to be exploded, all the money returned, even if that means HE has to pay. If Lambros screaped off $700K, how much did Cooke manage to scam off?

    I’d make HUGE hay out of the “no blacks on the jury” note, too. That is felony jury tampering. Nail them.

    The Goergia State Lesiclature need to get to work and make CLEAR definitions of what is legal and what is not, and write that into Georgia law. The vague and sketchy “definitions’ now in place leave the door right off the hinges for crooked prosecutors like Cooke and his sidekick Labros.

  15. Miss that place, had some great food. And the skinniest waitresses in the tightest jeans. And from what I understand, good gambling.

    They were and are not the only business that gets hit for paying out on the gambling machines. A lot of convient stores get caught in these raids too. Seems like something middle Georgia likes to do every once in a while.

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