Playing the odds: The rise of Sen. Chip Rogers
This article was produced collaboratively by Atlanta Unfiltered and The News Enterprise, a student reporting initiative of Emory College’s Journalism Program.
By DAVID MICHAELS
May 25, 2012 — Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers loves sports. “Most people probably think my greatest interest centers on politics,” Rogers wrote in a 2010 magazine article. “They would be wrong.”
“My personal friends,” the Woodstock Republican wrote, “know of my lifelong, and intense, passion for football.”
Some of Rogers’ oldest friends, in fact, first knew him not as a politician but as a sports handicapper operating under the names the “Atlanta Assassin,” the “Mobile Man” or, most frequently, “Will ‘The Winner.’”
When Rogers ran for the House in 2002, Atlanta Unfiltered and The News Enterprise have learned, he’d used those monikers over the course of a decade as a sports handicapper in recorded phone messages and cable TV infomercials. In return for a fee that ranged from $10 to $25, Rogers provided picks on selected college and pro games.
The future senator presented himself as an experienced handicapper in TV spots, but Rogers said Thursday he was simply a talent for hire.
“My job was limited to television and voicework, which was the nature of my business,” Rogers wrote in an email. “I did not pick games, I was given a script.”
At the time, Rogers made no such distinction. On a 1999 TV show, the host introduced Rogers as one of the country’s “premier handicappers.” The host also stated that Rogers had been a handicapper “for over a decade.”
By the early 2000s, “Will ‘The Winner’ Rogers” and “Will Rogers Private Service” appeared on an NCAA list of sports “tout” services. The memo reminded athletes and staffers at member institutions not to share information with such services or with “individuals involved in organized gambling activities.”
Rogers, responding by email to a reporter’s questions, downplayed his role as being nothing more than a pitchman for a client of his broadcasting business. His duties, Rogers wrote, included appearing on a cable TV show on which “the discussions focused solely on football prognostication.”
Video recordings, court records and interviews with former colleagues paint a vivid picture of Rogers as a football handicapper starting in the early 1990s and as recently as 2000. On one cable TV show, Rogers repeatedly urged viewers to dial a pay-per-call number and guaranteed that bettors would have 80 percent success with his selections.
In Georgia, advertising a gambling operation has been illegal for decades. State officials in recent years have discussed whether to legalize some forms of gambling, and GOP voters will be asked this summer if they favor casino gambling.
Rogers, since winning office in 2002, has earned headlines for his hard-line conservative stances on issues such as taxes and immigration. Those positions, along with his telegenic, clean-cut image, propelled him to the position of Senate majority leader in 2009.
The investigation by Atlanta Unfiltered and The News Enterprise found no evidence that Rogers placed or accepted bets on sporting events, activities that are illegal in the United States outside Nevada. But, in a 2001 column, a sports handicapper named “Will Rogers” recommended that bettors use the offshore Oasis Casino & Sportsbook, based in Curacao.
“The services, odds, hours, and payouts from an offshore sportsbook are far superior to any illegal local bookie,” the author wrote for AskMen.com. “I have been telling clients about Oasis Sportsbook since 1996, and I have never heard a single person complain about the customer service or payment results.”
Federal law prohibits making or accepting sports wagers over wired telecommunications systems. Prosecutors have won dozens of convictions and forfeitures against offshore sportsbooks under the U.S. Wire Act.
Rogers denied writing the AskMen column. “If an article was submitted under the name Will Rogers,” he wrote, “it has nothing to do with me.”
The senator, whose given name is William Rogers IV, pointed out that his client, Alabama-based OTM Sports, hired him to appear as Will Rogers. “It was the name they created and I suppose they are free to use it as they wish,” he wrote.
The nine-month joint investigation turned up no reference to Will Rogers as a handicapper after 2001, shortly before Chip Rogers opened his first campaign account in March 2002.
Handicapper Mike “The Animal” Mumbauer, who said he has known Rogers since college and worked with him in the early days of his tout career, said the senator seems reluctant today to discuss the past.
“The times I have seen Chip in public,” Mumbauer said, “I can tell he wants to avoid any conversation about the old days. And understandably so.”
In those early days, Rogers worked for and later shared offices with John Edens, a gambling industry entrepreneur who in 1992 lost an $800,000 judgment for fraudulent misrepresentation. In the mid-1990s, Edens temporarily housed what he now acknowledges was an illegal sportsbook operation outside of Atlanta.
Rogers and Edens maintained business and personal relations over the years, culminating in a 2009 deal in which Rogers and then-state Rep. Tom Graves transferred ownership of a beat-up northwest Georgia motel to Edens. The transaction later made headlines when Rogers argued that the deal absolved him from having to pay off a defaulted $2.2 million bank loan.
In recent telephone interviews, Edens said he met Rogers in the late 1980s when both worked for Atlanta businessman Jerry McCarn. Rogers, then an engineering undergraduate at Georgia Tech, wrote that McCarn paid him to monitor a chatline, “which I suppose was the precursor to Facebook today.”
Edens, who did advertising work for McCarn, started a new company in 1988 under the name Leta Inc. The venture, which began as a check-cashing business in a 1,200-square-foot Doraville storefront fitted with bulletproof glass, soon evolved into a tout and score-phone service as well as an advertising agency for other handicappers.
By early 1990, Rogers, while still in college, had begun working for Leta, Edens testified in sworn court depositions from a suit against him and his company. Another Leta employee testified that the future state senator, as the Atlanta Assassin and the Mobile Man, gave handicapping predictions while working for Leta.
Edens, too, said in an interview that Rogers worked as the Atlanta Assassin and the Mobile Man.
Rogers denied those assertions. “I have never heard of the Atlanta Assassin or the Mobile Man,” Rogers wrote Thursday. “Any suggestion placing my name in relation to these names is simply false.”
Edens acknowledged in an interview that successful tout services, including his own, frequently relied on bogus marketing claims, with handicappers often exaggerating their success rates. In sworn depositions, he testified that Leta and similar services profited at the expense of “compulsive gamblers.”
Within the tout industry, Edens developed an exceptionally negative reputation. If other touts “make you wish you had never installed your phone,” Sports Illustrated quipped in 1991, Edens “will make you wish Alexander Graham Bell had never been born.” The magazine reported that Edens’ handicapping service lied about giving guaranteed refunds for losing picks, fabricated endorsements of his service and made unverifiable claims about having access to inside information.
Leta’s operations ground to a halt after phone giant AT&T sued the company and Edens in 1991 under civil provisions of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. According to the suit, Edens had racked up $1.5 million in unpaid phone bills under 30 separate accounts. Each time AT&T shut down one of Leta’s phone lines for non-payment, the suit alleged, Edens used a made-up name to set up a new one. AT&T won an $800,000 judgment against Leta and accepted a $200,000 settlement.
Rogers, who worked for Leta when the suit was filed, was not implicated in the misconduct and was not deposed in the case.
As the AT&T suit proceeded in 1991, Edens started a new handicapping shop called Sports Promotion Inc. The enterprise advertised its network of toll-free numbers in newspapers nationwide and promoted a pay-per-call 900 number for handicapping services, including that of Edens’ tout alias, Johnny DeMarco.
Sports Promotion’s phone lines also ran advertising that, Edens acknowledged, referred callers to offshore casinos that accepted bets. For a time, its toll-free numbers also provided callers a direct line to the Paradise Casino, a Caribbean gambling operation co-owned by Edens’ longtime friend and fellow tout Marc Meghrouni, head of the handicapping enterprise Jack Price Sports.
“You could press seven or whatever it was to connect you right to the casino and open up an account,” Edens said recently.
Edens played an integral role in keeping the fledgling casino in business when a hurricane threatened to shut it down at the start of the 1995 NFL season. Edens said he set up the casino temporarily in a rented Duluth apartment, installed phone lines there and had Paradise’s calls forwarded to them.
“I had no idea that was illegal,” Edens said.
Paradise eventually drew the attention of federal prosecutors, who charged the casino’s owners in 1999 with violating the Wire Act, money laundering and tax evasion. Meghrouni and his partner pleaded guilty and forfeited more than $11 million in assets.
Rogers shared office space with Sports Promotion at the time the company provided advertising for Paradise Casino. Edens said recently that Rogers, after leaving Leta in the early 1990s, came back to take an office in the Sports Promotion space but never worked for the company.
“When my office got raided by the IRS [in connection with the Paradise investigation] in the late 1990s, Senator Rogers was working out of my office, but they didn’t even open his door,” Edens said. “He had nothing to do with Paradise Casino.”
Edens, who was not charged in the Paradise case, cooperated with prosecutors in their investigation, according to the lead prosecutor in the case.
By the time of the Paradise investigation, Rogers was providing the voice for “Will ‘The Winner’” on tout service’s phone lines, according to former associates, including Edens and former Sports Promotion employee Steve Lichtenstadter. One of those was the Will Rogers Winner Line, according to Paul, a Massachusetts man who said that he has called the line for more than a decade. “Will ‘The Winner’” boasted about the services’ performance for the most recent games, Paul said in a phone interview, and teased upcoming games for which callers could purchase picks.
Rogers said in his email that his “character” on TV was called Will “The Winner” Rogers, who made predictions much as announcer Chris Berman’s alter ego, the Swami, does currently on ESPN. He did not respond to a question about whether Will “The Winner” was marketed on phone lines.
One of the shows on which Rogers appeared was “The Sports Insiders.” On a September 2000 episode, Rogers promoted the Superphone, a service that he said provided “top handicapping selections from the nation’s top handicappers.”
Ads for the offshore Oasis Casino also appeared during the episode. The ads say the casino provided “instant payouts” and “legal sports wagering.” The casino’s founder, Curt Dalton, said in a recent interview that he knows Rogers through mutual friends but did not meet him until after selling his interest in Oasis.
Oasis was also endorsed in 2001 in the AskMen.com article, “Bet On Football And Win” — the article under the byline “Will Rogers” that Senator Rogers denies authoring. The column ends with a recommendation on where to wager. “For my money, Oasis Sportsbook is the place to call,” the author wrote, followed by a link to Oasis’ website.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Fagan, who prosecuted approximately 30 cases against offshore sports betting operations from 1997 to 2008, says there is extensive case law establishing the illegality under the U.S. Wire Act of using wired phone or Internet services to wager on sporting events.
“The law is quite clear that telephone and online gambling, particularly sports gambling, are violations of the Wire Act,” Fagan said. “That’s never been overturned or reversed.”
Fagan said advertising or promoting an illegal gambling operation is also a federal crime. “If you aid, abet, counsel, command, induce or procure an illegal act,” he said, “you are as guilty as the person who commits the crime.”
Near the end of the 1990s, Rogers added a new component to his broadcasting career that moved him into the political realm. In 1999, while still working as “Will ‘The Winner,’” Rogers purchased WYXC, a small AM radio station in Cartersville.
At WYXC, Rogers merged his two passions, transitioning the station to a format of sports and political talk. Rogers used his weekday morning show to discuss topics such as illegal immigration.
In 2002, Rogers entered politics, self-financing a successful bid for a state House seat with $68,400 out of pocket. After serving one term, Rogers spent more than $95,000 of personal funds to win a race for the state Senate.
Even as he moved into new arenas, Rogers stayed in touch with his onetime mentor and officemate, John Edens. The two have talked regularly over the years, according to Edens, about their families and sports.
“I like Senator Rogers,” Edens said. “He’s a good friend of mine.”
Edens acknowledged that he is “an embarrassment” to his friend. “But he’s remained my friend and I’ve tried to be true to him too,” he said.
Their relationship came into play in a 2009 business deal involving Rogers and Tom Graves, then a fellow Georgia lawmaker and now a U.S. congressman. Rogers and Graves jointly owned the run-down Oglethorpe Inn in Calhoun. With the inn facing difficulties, Edens said, Rogers asked him in 2009 to take over management of the motel to help stabilize the business and give Edens a change of scenery after a divorce.
“I’d been there about a month and there was a big brawl that broke out in the parking lot in the back,” Edens recalled. “So I called Senator Rogers and I said, ‘Listen, if you value your political career you need to get rid of this place and sell it. Dump it. Do whatever you got to do.’”
In November 2009, Rogers and Graves transferred ownership of the corporate entity that held the Oglethorpe Inn, Tich Hospitality LLC, to Edens. Court and property records show they sold the property, for which they’d paid $1.5 million two years earlier, to Edens for $10,000.
“I didn’t have to pay any money,” said Edens, who had declared bankruptcy in 2004. “I was supposed to pay them when the hotel got on its feet.”
After Edens took over the motel, Bartow County Bank sued Rogers and Graves in 2010, claiming the pair had defaulted on the $2.2 million loan they used to buy the inn. Rogers said he was no longer responsible for the debt because he was no longer involved in Tich Hospitality.
“I am no longer a part of the corporation,” Rogers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May 2010. “It is owned by somebody else. They still own the property. Of course, they have the liability and everything.”
Rogers and Graves later settled with the bank that took over the loan, agreeing to pay back nearly $1.2 million.
The Oglethorpe Inn closed in early 2011. Edens, who runs a car repossession business, soon found new quarters for his operation at WYXC, Rogers’ former radio station. Edens said Rogers coordinated the move with the station’s current owner. The senator wrote that he’s had no involvement with the WYXC property since he sold it in 2005.
Rogers’ two-decade long relationship with Edens evokes a pattern that Rogers described in his essay on football fandom.
“My friends will also tell you my strongest attribute is loyalty,” Rogers wrote.
David Michaels is an intern with Atlanta Unfiltered and a recent graduate of Emory University where he studied journalism and political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org