WSOPC Ring Winner Travell Thomas Declares Racial Motivation in Ongoing Debt-Collection Fraud Case

Semi-professional poker player Travell Thomas, best known in the poker world for winning two rings in WSOP Circuit satellite events has attempted to depose famed DOJ prosecutor Preet Bharara, lead US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, over claims that Bharara’s continuing prosecution of Thomas and ten others in a debt-collection fraud case filed in 2015 is racially motivated.  However, a judge ruled against the attempt to depose Bharara over his justifications in filing the case.



As published this week by the New York Post, Thomas’s attorneys argued that Bharara’s office has unfairly singled out African-American defendants for ongoing prosecution, as opposed to those involving non-black owners and operators in similar debt-collection complaints.  Bharara’s prosecutiorial district, centered in New York City, includes many victims of the allegedly illegal collection practices that Thomas’s debt-collection company used.

“Whereas most cases are traditionally handled civilly, 100 percent of the debt collection cases that are being prosecuted against owners of debt collection companies by Mr. Bharara‘s office are being brought against black male business owners,” a recent court submission by Thomas’s attorneys claim.  That “100% claim” belies the fact the base number thus described is exactly two, referring to previous owners of debt-collection businesses whose suspect practices fell under the scope of Bharara’s SDNY filings.

Bharara’s office has immediately protested Thomas’s claims, declaring them as “rank speculation.”

The filings, on behalf of Thomas and a co-owner, Maurice Sessum, also ignore the shady history of the debt-collection business in Buffalo, in upstate New York.  The Lake Erie port city has become a mecca of sorts for the debt-collection industry in recent decades, and its most successful practitioners have long and widely accused of illegal and aggressive practices in seeking to collect bad debt on behalf of clients.

The Buffalo-based industry first fell under a cloud of prosecutorial suspicion back in 2009, following a harsh expose on NBC’s “Dateline.”  Since then, periodic investigations and prosecutions have attempted to force the debt collectors to clean up their act, which in several cases have included things such as pretended to be police officers or IRS agents planning to arrive and arrest the debtors within minutes if said debt wasn’t immediately paid.

Thomas and 10 others, all executives and employees of the 4 Star Resolution LLC debt-collection firm in Buffalo or related business entities, were charged in early 2015 following a joint Federal Trade Commission [FTC] / Department of Justice [DOJ] investigation.

A synopsis of the DOJ charges as released by the FTC in February of 2015 painted a dark picture.  Here’s the meat of that statement:

According to the complaint, 4 Star regularly called consumers using fictitious addresses, bogus company names, and spoofed phone numbers. After misrepresenting their names and locations, 4 Star’s collectors falsely identified themselves to consumers, claiming that they were attorneys, process servers, government agents, or criminal law enforcement officials.

In addition, 4 Star’s collectors allegedly falsely claimed that the consumers had committed an illegal or criminal act such as bank or check fraud. 4 Star’s collectors then falsely threatened consumers with dire consequences, including arrest, imprisonment, and civil lawsuits, unless the consumers made an immediate payment on the supposed debts.

The complaint cites several examples that illustrate the defendants’ alleged abusive and deceptive conduct. During one call to collect on a supposed debt, a 4 Star collector used the pseudonym “Detective Jeff Ramsay,” and left a message where he falsely asserted that he was seeking to serve a bench warrant on the consumer for check fraud.

In another instance, 4 Star’s collectors falsely told a consumer that her husband had committed check and money fraud and that legal action would be taken against the husband if the debt was not paid in two days. One of 4 Star’s collectors falsely identified himself to the consumer as “Investigator Kearns” and claimed that he worked for a government agency located in Washington, DC.

The complaint also alleges that when consumers asked for proof of the supposed debt, 4 Star’s representatives refused to provide it, and instead often told consumers they would only receive proof in court or after the debt was paid. The defendants often allegedly failed to provide written notice of the debt as required by law and failed to make required disclosures to consumers.

Finally, the complaint alleges that 4 Star unlawfully disclosed information about supposed debtors to third parties, including friends, family members, and employers, and illegally used abusive and profane language, including routinely calling consumers such names as “idiot,” “dummy,” “piece of scum,” “thief,” or “loser.

In addition, part of the fraud element of the charges, for which Thomas and the other leading co-defendant in the case, Sessum, could each face 20-year prison sentences, is that Thomas’s business collected at least $31 million due to fraudulent invocation of the Payday Loan Company’s name.  According to the DOJ press statement from back in 2015:

In November 2012, the Payday Loan Company advised TRAVELL THOMAS that it had learned that employees of the Company were making improper threats and misrepresentations in order to collect debts purportedly owed to the Payday Loan Company and falsely indicating to consumers that the Company was providing collection services on behalf of the Payday Loan Company. The Payday Loan Company issued a letter to TRAVELL THOMAS directing him to cease and desist using the Payday Loan Company’s name in collecting debt. TRAVELL THOMAS refused, and employees of the Company continued to attempt to collect debts purportedly on behalf of the Payday Loan Company.

The DOJ also alleged that in May of 2015, following the initial charges brought against the group of businesses, its owners and many employees, that Thomas himself “instructed a former employee of the Company not to show Company scripts ‘to anyone’ because they ‘weren’t legal.’”

The FTC and DOJ jointly investigated the 4 Star family of debt-collection businesses for several years, and the litany of charges that were eventually filed cover the years 2010 to late 2014.

The lengthy DOJ presser also made significant note that Thomas appeared to have transferred considerable proceeds from his debt-collection businesses directly into his poker-playing bankroll.  Again, per the DOJ in 2015:

In total, from about January 2010 through November 2014, the Company collected more than approximately $31 million from thousands of victims across the United States. Of the money that the Company took in from victims, approximately $850,000 in cash was paid to SESSUM, approximately $750,000 in cash was paid to TRAVELL THOMAS, approximately $1.4 million was cashed from banks and ATMs, and tens of thousands of dollars was used to pay for TRAVELL THOMAS’s gambling expenses, tickets for professional sports games, TRAVELL THOMAS’s wedding reception, jewelry, and cosmetic surgery for his wife, among other expenses.

The Hendon Mob’s tournament database shows Thomas with more than $510,000 in recorded cashes, with all but one coming since 2009.  Thomas ranks in the top 2,000 all-time US tourney players and has also notched a handful of WSOP and WPT cashes.

Thomas, through his attorneys, has also recently filed a motion to suppress evidence in the case, in particular from computers and a smartphone that were seized during the 2015 raids on his companies’ operations.  An affidavit filed this week by Thomas alleges that since the devices seized also contained private information and were password-protected, that Thomas had an expectation to privacy and that relevant evidence found on those devices should not be admitted.

The case, USA v. Lavin et al, 1:15-cr-00667-KPF-5, continues.


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