WPT Winner Dennis Blieden Charged with Embezzlement of $22 Million
Ohio native and current Nevada resident Dennis Blieden, known best in poker circles for winning the 2018 World Poker Tour LA Poker Classic, has been arrested and charged with the embezzlement of $22 million from the social-media company for which he formerly worked.
Blieden, now 29, was arrested in Las Vegas on Wednesday and is expected to be quickly transferred to California, where the charges were filed and where Blieden formerly lived. According to a press statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California, Blieden will be indicted on 11 counts of wire fraud, one count of aggravated identity theft, and two forfeiture counts. Blieden made an initial court appearance yesterday in Las Vegas, and will face formal arraingment in a federal court in Las Angeles once he is transferred to California.
The USAO’s statement on Blieden’s arrest states, “According to the indictment, between October 2015 and March 2019, Blieden was the controller and vice president of accounting and finance for StyleHaul, a digital company once based in Hollywood, but which relocated to London in April. In this role, Blieden had control over the company’s bank accounts, and allegedly abused this authority to wire the company’s money to his personal bank accounts.”
StyleHaul is an online-focused business that partakes in “influencing,” a rather shady social-media practice designed to enhance the impact of a given customer’s posts or Tweets, usually with product sales or cause awareness in mind. Such influencers often, though not solely, operate by using networks of largely fake accounts to retweet or like posts, creating what is essentially a fake image of a post or story being more popular or influential than it actually is.
Exactly how Blieden managed to embezzle $22 million from a company that was little more than a start-up is one of the secondary topics that needs further explanation, though it suggests the company had a severe lack of internal controls. Blieden’s move from California to Las Vegas earlier this year and StyleHaul’s nearly simultaneous move from LA to London are also likely to be closely connected.
In one of those “not the first time we’ve been down this road” moments, Blieden used a significant amount of the stolen funds in an attempt to launch a pro poker career. According to the USAO presser:
Blieden, who has entered and won professional poker tournaments, also frequently engaged in online gambling with crypto-currency he purchased with embezzled money, according to the government’s motion requesting detention in this case. During the course of the alleged scheme, Blieden used money he stole from his employer to write $1,204,000 in personal checks to poker players, $1,134,956 was used to pay off his credit cards, and $8,473,734 was transferred to Blieden’s crypto-currency accounts, according to court documents.
Shortly before his dismissal from StyleHaul, on February 21 and 22, Blieden entered into two poker tournaments, wherein the buy-in amounts were $52,000 and $103,000, respectively, court papers state.
Blieden emerged from nowhere as the winner* of the 2018 WPT LAPC main event, binking a million-dollar prize, but industry chatter suggests he’s lost considerably more than that after playing but not cashing in other tourneys, faring poorly in some high-stakes, high-profile cash games, and gambling online. Besides the LAPC title, Blieden’s online-results profile is unimpressive. That investigators were able to identify some cryptocurrency investments also raises the possibility that Blieden may have moved a significant amount of the stolen funds into such holdings, assuming that he is indeed guilty as charged.
Blieden is also alleged to have used stolen funds for highly self-indulgent purposes. Here’s another excerpt from the USAO statement:
Blieden is charged with disguising his fraudulent behavior in various ways, including creating a fictitious lease in May 2018 for the rental of a condominium in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, which bore a forged signature of a StyleHaul executive.
The indictment further alleges that Blieden illicitly transferred $230,000 of StyleHaul’s funds for his own personal use by falsely representing that the condominium was being rented for business purposes for StyleHaul’s clients and employees. Blieden also created fictitious wire transfer letters purportedly from Western Union to make it falsely appear that he had caused wire transfers from StyleHaul to a client to pay money due to the client, the indictment alleges.
Blieden faces up to a maximum of 200 years behind bars if convicted on all counts, though the reality is that the charges will likely be compressed into some form of plea deal, with a 10- or 15-year sentence more likely. Nonetheless, the poker career of this luck-once poker wannabe is likely over for good.
*This writer declines to use the word “champion” to describe someone who likely stole money to play poker. “Winner” is bad, too, but it will have to suffice.