Judge accepts ex-Utah banker’s guilty plea in gambling case
Deal • John Campos agrees to misdemeanor charge for poker processing at SunFirst Bank.
Published: April 19, 2012 12:20PM
Updated: April 19, 2012 08:16PM
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John William Campos

A New York judge has accepted the guilty plea of former St. George banker John Campos, who was indicted on charges that he illegally agreed to process payments for online poker companies at SunFirst Bank.

U.S. District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan signed an order accepting Campos’ guilty plea to a single misdemeanor charge of causing a bank insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to process illegal gambling transactions.

Before his plea bargain with federal prosecutors, Campos faced five felony charges related to the poker payment processing. The former vice chairman of the St. George-based bank pleaded guilty on March 28 to the misdemeanor, but Kaplan delayed approving the plea, asking prosecutors to explain why they entered into the deal.

The judge accepted the plea bargain on Wednesday after prosecutors submitted a letter to the judge, saying, among other things, that the defendant’s role in the scheme had been relatively minor.

Campos was arrested April 15, 2011, following an indictment handed up in New York against him, Las Vegas businessman Chad Elie and poker company owners.

Campos was alleged to have made a deal with Elie and St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson for two of the three largest online poker companies to use the bank to accept payment from players in exchange for a $10 million investment in SunFirst and a $20,000 bonus to him for consulting services. Johnson was not indicted in that case but faces a single fraud charge in federal court in Utah for operation of an online sales company called I Works.

Elie also has pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the poker case.

State regulators seized SunFirst Bank in November, and its assets were sold. The bank had made extensive real estate loans and got into trouble with regulators when the real estate market crash in 2007 depleted its capital. Johnson and Elie approached Campos in late 2009.

According to court records, the three would eventually agree to Johnson and Elie investing $10 million to bolster SunFirst’s capital, with the bank, in turn, agreeing to process the poker payments. The bank ultimately processed about $200 million in payments in less than a year until ordered by the FDIC to halt the practice.

Federal prosecutors in New York told the judge that they entered into the plea deal because the charge to which Campos pleaded guilty was appropriate to his actions and because the sentencing guidelines were largely the same for the misdemeanor as for the felony charges he faced earlier.

They also said Campos’ role in the gambling payment processing was relatively minor. He received $20,000 as part of the processing deal but kept only $4,500 of it and then suffered the loss of his investment in SunFirst when it was seized.

While there is evidence that SunFirst’s lawyer told Campos that processing poker transactions was illegal, he would have had a “slightly more viable” defense than other defendants at trial that he had acted in good faith, the prosecutors said.

Campos was “plied” with legal opinions claiming the processing was lawful and the bank executive was not aware of earlier arrests and court-ordered seizures related to gambling processing, they said.

“As a result,’’ the prosecutors told the judge, “there is an enhanced risk that jurors could conceivably hesitate to convict Campos despite other evidence tending to negate Campos’ alleged good faith.”

As part of the agreement, Campos also is barred for life from the banking industry.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 27. Under federal guidelines, a guilty plea to the misdemeanor could bring up to six months in prison.

Campos’ Utah attorney, Neil Kaplan of ClydeSnow, declined to comment.

tharvey@sltrib.com

Twitter: @TomHarveySltrib