- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - One of the nation’s top card players lost his poker face on Tuesday while pleading guilty in a $31 million debt collection scam.

Travell Thomas, a past winner of World Series of Poker tournaments, cried repeatedly as he entered the plea in federal court in Manhattan to conspiring to commit wire fraud and wire fraud. The 38-year-old suburban Buffalo resident agreed not to challenge any sentence less than 15 1/2 years in prison or a forfeiture order of up to $31 million when he is sentenced in February.

Thomas said he violated the law when he encouraged employees of his Buffalo-based debt collection business to make false threats and representations to force thousands of people nationwide to resolve debts.

“I knew what I was doing was wrong and violating the law,” he told U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla.

Prosecutors said victims sometimes paid more than they owed after they were warned that they might be arrested if they didn’t immediately pay off debts. They said the debt collection company Thomas headed also falsely claimed to victims that it was affiliated with local government and law enforcement agencies.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the prosecution, which has resulted in 10 other guilty pleas, a “landmark consumer fraud case that victimized thousands of people across the country.”

“Thomas instructed his debt collectors to threaten, intimidate, and lie to their victims by overstating their debts and making false claims about what would happen to if they didn’t pay up,” he said in a statement.

During the plea, the judge asked Thomas if overstating the debts was referred to as “juicing.”

“Yes, your honor,” he answered.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward A. Imperatore told the judge the scheme was carried out between 2010 and 2015 as Thomas oversaw four debt collection offices in Buffalo, where employees read from scripts approved by Thomas to coerce people into paying money.

He said evidence that would have been revealed at trial included the testimony of victims and cooperating witnesses plus emails, instant chats, spreadsheets, victim complaints and bank records.


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