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PPA Linked to Full Tilt / PokerStars SunFirst Bank Lobbying Effort, Part 3: Unsuccessful Lobbying

The two-front lobbying effort on behalf of the SunFirst Bank online poker processing began in earnest in March, 2010, once officials for Full Tilt and PokerStars realized that both Jeremy Johnson of Elite Debit and John Pappas of the Poker Players Alliance had connections to Mark Shurtleff, the sitting Utah Attorney General.

sunfirstbank-logoThe plan, as noted in Part 2, would involve the promotion of the SunFirst Bank processing, with at least three separate legal opinions being forwarded to the Utah AG’s office.  Other opinions may also have been created, but the three since made public were authored by gaming attorneys Ian Imrich and Mark Zwillinger (on behalf of Full Tilt) and by Tom Goldstein (on behalf of PokerStars).

Pappas himself met with Utah AG Shurtleff and Deputy AG Swallow on either April 1 or April 2, 2010, and notes provided to this author by the Salt Lake Tribune offer a summary of the meeting.  Whether or not these notes were taken from a related e-mail or are a shortened version of a longer communication is unclear, but the Tribune’s publication of other e-mails from the same source (Jeremy Johnson) speaks to the notes’ authenticity:

April 2, 2010
…. Discussion opinion on poker process … AG and deputy warned an opinion might backfire “because the public nature of the opinion might cause members of the legislature to demand a change in the law to make it more clear that poker was illegal” … points out church is opposed to poker. ..

more include to try something less than formal opinion, like nonprosecution letter or statement. … suggest amicus brief … We also discuss how such a brief might be portrayed as consistent with Utah’s view of federalism …

Pappas separately wrote, in another e-mail, “The purpose of the meeting, from the PPA’s perspective, was to get the attorney general to review the law and our analysis of the relevant case law and to consider issuing an opinion related to poker.”

It is unknown whether Jeremy Johnson also attended the early-April meeting.  According to the Tribune story, “others” attended the meeting between Pappas and the Utah AG’s office, though Pappas, in the heated PocketFives attack wherein he called this author’s work disgraceful, insisted that that the only face-to-face meeting he had with Johnson was at a PPA-organized fundraiser for Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, held a couple of months later in conjunction with the 2010 WSOP in Las Vegas.

According to Pappas, “I have only met Mr. Johnson in-person once and briefly, when he attended a fundraiser with almost 100 people that our organization hosted for Senator Reid at the World Series of Poker.”

Nonetheless, ongoing e-mail communications between Johnson, Pappas and others spanned at least a couple of months in the spring of 2010.

As for the lobbying effort, later e-mails supplied to the Tribune by Johnson indicated that Shurtleff and Swallow considered the legality of the SunFirst online poker processing, and had ideas that might strengthen it legally, but were unwilling to provide any sort of legal opinion as potential cover for the operation.

Two abridged replies from Deputy AG Swallow back to Johnson show a level of tacit support for the SunFirst processing, partially contradicting later assertions by Swallow captured on a secretly taped recording in a 2012 meeting with Johnson that he had declared the SunFirst processing to be legal:
July 4, 2010
From [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Continues same day from Johnson to Swallow
 Subject: fw: Akin memo re DOJ
The question here is is there a Utah law that prohibits the processing of Poker transactions for persons in other states and countries aside from Utah? We have decied that the law is unclear on if Poker is legal to play online if you are residing in Utah so we are blocking transactions from anyone in Utah but we still think it is legal to process the transactions for other states and countries. Let me know your thoughts.


July 5, 2010
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Jeremy, I am not aware of any such law in Utah to prohibit what you are doing. I’ll have one of our assistant Attorneys General look into it tomorrow. Let’s talk tomorrow.
 [email protected]

[Note that this last e-mail has text directed to “Jeremy” (Johnson) despite appearing to emanate from Johnson’s own address. However, the presence of two different John Swallow e-mail addresses indicates it was cropped from a larger chunk of headers and text. — hh]

These and other e-mails show that draft versions of opinions supporting the purported legality of US online poker and or the Utah-based processing were in circulation for several months, opinions crafted by attorneys representing the online firms. Two of the opinions as later published by Elie, appear to have been subsequently re-dated to December of 2010,  immediately following the FDIC-ordered shutdown of the SunFirst processing.

By that time, those involved faced a different sort of legal challenge and the groundwork of the Black Friday crackdown was clearly in place.

Next, The SunFirst Collapse


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4




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