Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Poker Players Alliance --- Whose Lapdog is It?

This one's a work in progress, good readers, an outgrowth of last month's posting on 2+2 by publishing honcho Mason Malmuth of an investigation into the Poker Players Allaince, currently headed by Michael Bolcerek. By most accounts, Malmuth felt a little besieged by poker fans clamoring for 2+2 to join the cause, even though there are a whole lot people in the poker world who want to know a little more about the PPA, and the PPA doesn't seem to want to cough up the info.

The report, prepared by Mark G. Tratos, from the legal firm of Greenburg Traurig, shows at least two irregularities or oversights in the PPA’s current structure. According to the report, made public about five weeks ago, the PPA has not made public any documentation supporting its status as a not-for-profit entity registered under Nevada law as a 501(c)(4) organization, the nomenclature used to identify all federally-regulated not-for-profits. Such registration, along with copies of the mandatory ‘exemption letter’ granting not-for-profit status from the IRS, are generally made available by not-for-profits to all interested parties.

The non-disclosure is a larger issue than first glance might indicate. While there is an outstanding point concerning the exact type of not-for-profit status the PPA holds, the Tratos report affirms this: “As a not for profit organization, the PPA is prohibited from allowing any part of the net earnings of the entity to inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.” This statutory requirement is magnified because the PPA has never issued an annual report, disclosed its budgets, revenues, officer compensation or other expenditures, and as the investigation shows, the PPA had ample time to do so --- the investigation shows that the PPA was first registered in April of 2005.

In addition, the report shows that the PPA’s roots trace back to a second, now-defunct organization, the Professional Poker Players Association [PPPA] launched by Sam Golewitz. Despite the fact that Michael Bolcerek was the sole officer identified by the Poker Players Alliance, investigation into the PPA’s website and domain registration instead pointed to the older PPPA and Golewitz as late as November of 2006. Golewitz may well have been (and continue to be) on contract for services, but with PPA expenditures having never been fully disclosed, the exact nature of the relationship remains unknown.

The investigation also examined the PPA’s Washington, D.C. efforts, finding them sparse, although further research by this writer showed that the PPA did retain the services of one D.C.-based lobbying organization during 2005. The third-party lobbying organization, the right-leaning Federalist Group, has received at least $500,000 in PPA money for further lobbying efforts --- $220,000 during the last six months of 2005, and $280,000 during the first half of 2006. Later expenditures are not yet available, but one can certainly expect that second-half 2006 payments to the Federalist Group topped $300,000. However, the clarifying point is this: All records indicate that the PPA is not registered as a lobbying organization itself, but rather as a Nevada special-interest group, serving interests not wholly disclosed to the public.

On the topic of the PPA’s own D.C. presence, the Tratos report offered this: “The investigation revealed that the address is a rented office space shared with about twelve (12) other companies. The receptionist in charge of handling correspondence for all of the businesses at that address indicated that no PPA employees were present and that she very rarely saw anyone associated with a PPA physically present at the Washington D.C. location. No other information such as membership information, tax exempt status letter, employee rosters, designated lobbyists or the like was available for inspection.”

The report’s next paragraph provided more: “As additional follow-ups, attorneys and paralegals from our office directed phone calls and e-mails to the PPA over several days. We sought information regarding the deductibility of donations, the ‘not for profit’ status of the organization, the availability of annual reports, projected budgets and the like. Unfortunately, our investigative efforts resulted in no further information as phone calls and e-mails were either not returned or the information that was returned was limited to a vague, non-specific assurance by the PPA that ‘any donation made would go towards keeping poker legal.’”

Despite the fact that six weeks have elapsed since Malmuth published the investigation’s findings on 2+2, a recent examination of the PPA website shows no additional budgetary or registration disclosure, and the only mention of people involved within PPA is on the ‘Board of Directors’ page, showing PPA president Bolcerek and noted poker figures Linda Johnson, Greg Dinkin and Jan Fisher. Worse, the PPA seems determined to dodge this matter in its entirety; Bolcerek declined to return two calls made to the PPA office by this writer in recent days.

It is vitally important during this time of stress to the poker world that the exact nature of the PPA --- whatever it is --- is made public. The above allegations were met with all sorts of "The PPA is a scam!" posts on 2+2 and elsewhere, but no, that doesn't seem to be the case. Bolcerek is quite visible and earnest in his efforts, but it's exactly what those efforts are that is the cause of recent discontent. The major points that the PPA has not yet answered to are these?

1) Why has the PPA not proffered any sort of public financial statement, as is almost always done by not-for-profits seeking to further their own goodwill?

2) Exactly which corporate entites have made large-scale contributions to the PPA, and for what purpose?

3) How much and in what form are Michael Bolcerek and Sam Golewitz paying themselves?

The PPA is almost certainly not a scam, but it might well be a sweet-deal setup for its principals, who could be collecting overly large salaries and lots of travel perks in the process. Not "are," but "could be," and that's why now is the time for the PPA to offer open and full disclosure. Furthermore, the PPA has never issued an official position paper, but instead relies on platitudes such as "keeping poker legal" and "building a grass-roots base of support."

Also, since the PPA's lobbying efforts have never been reported back to the poker public as anything other than broad-based generalities, there's no way to determine exactly what initiatives the PPA really favors. Some conjectures suggest that the PPA is really a mouthpiece for Card Player's interests, which may align with poker in general but do not necessarily correlate fully with the needs nor challenges of the online game. I can't offer any insight on that, but those rumors do exist.

But it does call into question the persistent demands that the online sites should donate huge sums to the PPA. Given that the PPA's current batting average is exactly 200 points between the Mendoza Line, and the PPA itself has not answered questions about its own goals, such a clamor seems misguided. While the online sites must do something, they may well have a greater real effect by forming a trust fund in support of other countries willing to challenge the United States in forums such as the World Trade Organization, and this time to challenge the U.S. specifically over online poker.

I admit to not having a great deal of faith in the PPA, its probable good intent aside. The thought of Chris Ferguson putting on his dog-and-pony show of tossing a playing card through a banana for a Congressional audience is aww-shucks cute. The thought that such a display would have any effect in a money-rules political process where billion-dollar sweetheart deals and carveouts are negotiated in back rooms is ludicrously pathetic. That's why it's important to determine exactly whose interests the PPA serves. If the PPA wants to be open and honest and promote the interests of the poker players that it claims to, then it deserves our support. If not, then we're better off scrapping the thing and starting over.

As for me, I'm two parts bulldog and one part pure bitch. I'm just going to keep on digging and digging and digging until I find out who exactly is the PPA's real sugar daddy. Rightly or wrongly, it's something that the poker world needs to know.

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