I spent the last two months reporting the case of the Louisiana horsemen’s group in which its leaders were indicted in November for a panoply of fraud – wire, mail, identity and health care – and are basically charged with trying to take anything that wasn’t tied down. It’s ensnared some powerful and well-known people in Louisiana racing. And its narrative conclusion is far from being written – the trial won’t be held until September.
The result of my investigation was a lengthy piece in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section last Saturday, where I’ve had the privilege of contributing my long-form stories for the last year and a half. The link is on the right side of the main page and also in the “Articles” tab above. What follows is the introduction to the piece.
If Hamlet were recast in modern America, is there any doubt where it would be set? Over the last six years in Louisiana, a Shakespearean performance full of intrigue, betrayal, greed, and family rivalries has played out within the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), the non-profit group recognized by law as the voice of the more than 5,000 owners and trainers who race at the state’s four racetracks.
This storyline is as familiar to Louisianans as Mardi Gras. The populist governor Earl Long once said that his constituents “don’t want good government, they want good entertainment.” But if there is any entertainment here it could only be dark comedy.
Last November, the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern District of Louisiana charged Sean Alfortish, the president of the HBPA, and Mona Romero, its executive director, with 29 counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, identity fraud, wire fraud, healthcare fraud, and witness tampering. The investigation took more than two years.
Alfortish, 43, and Romero, 52, pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. The board of the HBPA forced them to resign, and their trial is scheduled for September. If they are convicted on all 29 counts, Alfortish and Romero face maximum penalties of 280 years in jail and $7.25 million in fines.
Even for a game well acquainted with tomfoolery, this was sensational. Prosecutors say that beginning in March 2005, when Alfortish won election and then chose Romero as executive director, they siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the HBPA and its medical benefits trust for cash and salaries, parties and vacations, cars and entertainment, evening gowns and diamond cufflinks, and even a settlement in a sexual harassment suit.
That isn’t all. The indictment charges that after horsemen from around the country donated almost $800,000 for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita relief, Alfortish and Romero seized control of the funds and spent some on themselves and gave more to undeserving friends.
And, as a minority of elected members of the HBPA’s 10-person board asked more and more questions about the finances of the association, Alfortish and Romero, prosecutors say, conspired with three subordinates to rig the March 2008 election, replacing those members with their preferred candidates.