The three Batavia men arrested in February for running an illegal gambling operation, including two city firefighters, have entered guilty pleas in city court today to a Class A misdemeanor charge of promoting gambling, 2nd.
The pleas are a dramatically reduced from the Class B felony of enterprise corruption, which the case was elevated to in April.
Gregory Phillips and Brian Bordinaro, both veteran city firefighters, along with Lance Engel, a cook with the state's veterans home in Batavia, were originally arrested on a felony charge of criminal possession of gambling records in the first degree, a Class E felony. Philips was also accused of possessing a small amount of cocaine and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, 7th.
The Class B felony carried a maximum penalty of 8 to 25 years in state prison.
City Court Judge Robert Balbick's sentencing options include everything from an unconditional discharge to a year in county jail, including a combination of a shorter jail term and a term of probation.
As part of the plea deal, all three men agreed to resign their government jobs.
Attorney Larry Andolina, representing Phillips, said the charge his clients pled guilty to was exactly what they should have been charged with in the first place.
"I just don’t think gambling is that serious of a crime considering all of the gambling that goes on by the state, various lottery tickets, horsing racing, casinos … times need to be changed," Andolina said.
When the case first became public, investigators said gambling records indicated the trio was running a wide-ranging bookmaking operation that covered a variety sports, had numerous clients and turned over about $1 million in wagers. The trio was alleged by investigators to have taken in $80,000 in profits.
Andolina said none of that was true.
"It's all nonsense," Andolina said. "This was little people, betting, gambling on football games. It was blown so out of proportion, which is why it ended up being a misdemeanor."
At the first court appearance that Andolina and his fellow attorneys made on behalf of their clients, District Attorney Lawrence Friedman turned over thousands of pages of "discovery" -- the evidence the government has supposedly gathered against the defendants.
Andolina said the discovery failed to substantiate the original charges.
Friedman was not in court today, was out of the office and has not responded to a request for comment.
Sheriff Gary Maha said his investigators felt they had a solid case that could substantiate the felony charges or they wouldn't have made the arrests.
"We have many cases in which we make an arrest and then the case is pled down," Maha said. "It's our job to make the arrest. It's the DA's job to decide what to do with the case."
The Class A misdemeanor of promoting gambling is the lowest level crime under Article 225, New York's gambling penal code.
Joseph LaTona, attorney for Engel, said there was nothing unusual at all about the plea bargain. He characterized it as a "garden variety" plea.
"I’ve practiced criminal defense law for almost 40 years in Western New York and for individuals without a prior criminal history, for a first-time gambling offense, this is par for the course," LaTona said. "I’ve had many dispositions identical to this throughout many counties in Western New York. It’s not unusual. It’s typical."
Sentencing on all three defendants is set for March 5.
One decision Balbick will be asked to make in the case of Phillips is to declare what Andolina called a "release from liabilities." He said Phillips has an opportunity for another job and a release from liabilities allows a person convicted of a crime to still be licensed in New York for some types of jobs. Andolina said the job prospect for Phillips is in the private sector.
Phillips and Bordinaro had 17 and 18 years on the job and would have been eligible for a New York State pension if they had completed 20 years of employment.
Both, they said in court, have already resigned from their city jobs.
Photos: Top, Bordinaro, center, with Andolina, right and Greg Ireland, president of IAFF Local 896. Inset, Phillips.