Whistleblower: Banks may be laundering poker money
Published: September 24, 2013 08:37AM
Updated: March 8, 2014 07:41PM

Las Vegas • A banker who stood up against an online gambling operation was the star of an anti-money-laundering conference in Las Vegas on Monday.

Compliance officer Cathy Scharf told an auditorium full of aghast colleagues about her experiences at a Utah bank that illegally processed at least $200 million for the offshore gambling sites PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker.

She said her bosses told her the bank would fail without the illegal income and brought in criminal lawyers to threaten her with arrest if she told on them.

Scharf ultimately worked with federal regulators to expose SunFirst Bank’s partnership with the sites. She said other banks may also be caught up in similar offshore gambling operations. After all, banks need deposits.

Scharf took the job at SunFirst, in the depths of the recession, moving to St. George, Utah, from Las Vegas. She found out during her first week that her new employers were dealing primarily in illegal business.

“They just told me,” she said. “And also, I could see from the stacks of slips going in and out.”

Whenever a gambler transferred funds to one of the offshore card sites, the money went through the small Utah bank. The bank was making $400,000 a month in transaction fees, Scharf said, violating a 2006 law that makes it a federal crime to knowingly accept payment for illegal internet gambling.

On Monday, Scharf wore black leather cowboy boots and a shy smile. She told the darkened room that she felt like an outsider from her first day on the job, both because she was a stranger in the town of 75,000, and because it was her job to keep the bank in compliance with the law.

“They wanted to keep making money so they could bring the bank back,” she said. “My frame of mind was just shoot me and put me out of my misery.”

With the support of colleagues, she hired a lawyer, started a diary of her travails, and began working with federal authorities. It was a scary time. During one weekend trip back to Las Vegas, Scharf saw a yellow Lamborghini shoot by her. The driver was one of the honchos at the bank.

“All I could do was shut my eyes,” she said.

In 2012, the bank’s vice chairman went to prison for his role in the scheme.