Friday, March 7, 2003

Pull-tab lottery tied to terror


Official: Funds went to Mideast

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
George


State authorities are investigating whether a pull-tab lottery game that was supposed to benefit charities in Ohio instead funneled nearly $500,000 to Islamic terrorists in the Middle East.

Details about the investigation emerged Thursday in Cincinnati during the sentencing of Philip George, an Akron man who was convicted of skimming money from the sale of instant lottery tickets at Ohio bars.

An investigator for the Ohio Department of Public Safety testified that at least some of the money that George raised through the lottery has been linked to the militant terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hezbollah operates in Syria and Lebanon, while Hamas is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

George's attorney, Robert Gutzwiller, described the allegations as "balderdash" and said his client has no connection to terrorists.

But the state investigator, Harold Torrens, testified that at least $234,000 in lottery proceeds was sent to the United Saghbeen Society.

The Lebanese charity has been linked to the two terrorist groups by a private international intelligence company.

Torrens said investigators also are trying to confirm that the Saghbeen Society received an additional $250,000 in cash from the lottery game.

"George used the lottery to accumulate money that went overseas," Torrens said Thursday after George was sentenced in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to 25 years in prison. "There were wire transfers going over there in large amounts of money."

He said investigators connected the lottery funds to terrorist groups with help from the private international company, which is headed by a former Israeli intelligence officer.

The company, Interfor Inc., found that both George and the Saghbeen Society are "quite well-known to intelligence agencies in the Middle East, primarily the government of Israel."

"The United Saghbeen Society is an organization that has supported two terrorist networks in the Middle East," the company concluded in a report it sent to Torrens last year.

George's lawyer, Robert Gutzwiller, said the allegations are false. He said George is a Lebanese Christian who was born in the United States. He said his client has no reason to support Islamic terrorist groups.

"It's balderdash," Gutzwiller said. "It's nothing but innuendo. ... I'm not buying into anything they're saying."

He said the money sent overseas went through the Saghbeen Society to an all-girls school in Lebanon, not to terrorist organizations.

The judge who presided over George's three-week trial in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court didn't buy that explanation. Judge Robert Ruehlman said the evidence against George seemed credible.

"This is a major criminal enterprise," Ruehlman said. "This money was going for a very bad purpose, for international terrorism."

Torrens said the state investigation will continue for some time and that all information about terrorism has been turned over to federal authorities.

Despite all the talk about terrorism, none of the charges against George mentions the terrorist groups or suggests that he knew the money sent overseas might have supported terrorists.

George was convicted of money laundering, gambling and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity for his role in organizing the pull-tab lottery game, which authorities say generated as much as $57 million from 1997 to 2000. Several people across the state have been arrested in connection with the game.

The instant lottery was billed as a charitable game, but authorities believe George and others made up some of the charities and skimmed money for their own use.

In addition to sending money overseas, Torrens said, George spent proceeds from the lottery on expensive clothes and travel to resorts in Las Vegas and Florida.

"What he did was pretty reprehensible," Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said Thursday. "He made people think the money was going to charity, when really it was going to line somebody's pockets or possibly to fund a terrorist organization."




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