A recently formed non-profit association affiliated with the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association is helping fund the legal defense of trainer Murray Rojas, who has been charged with multiple counts of wire fraud and criminal conspiracy in a long-running federal investigation of horsemen and racing officials at Penn National racetrack in Grantville, Pa.
Articles of incorporation for the National Thoroughbred Owners & Trainers Legal Defense Fund Foundation, Inc., were filed with the Kentucky Secretary of State in April 2016 by Lexington attorney Peter L. Ecabert, general counsel to the National HBPA.
Among the purposes listed on the fund's articles of incorporation are to “provide support to individuals who are licensed owners and trainers of Thoroughbred race horses and who are in need of legal support and advocacy services with respect (to) accusations and/or charges by governmental agencies, administrative agencies, and like entities with respect to their involvement as licensed owners and trainers of Thoroughbred race horses and who are without the means to fund a defense to include counsel, court costs, and expert witness fees and where such matter has significant ramifications to those involved in the horse racing industry.”
National HBPA CEO Eric Hamelback referred all questions about the fund to Ecabert, who confirmed that Rojas has been the sole recipient of financial assistance from the fund to date. Ecabert declined to say how much has been raised or paid to Robert E. Goldman, the Allentown, Pa., attorney representing Rojas in federal court.
Money has been donated to the fund by local HBPA divisions and individuals, said Ecabert, who added that he is seeking approval from the Internal Revenue Service to have the fund classified as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization.
Directors at the time of incorporation were Leroy Gessman, the Iowa-based president and board chairman of the National HBPA; Hamelback, and Robert Scott, the National HBPA's accountant. Ecabert said board members have been added from several states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio and Kentucky.
Financial need and the impact on the industry as a whole are key elements to deciding whether the fund will support an individual or division seeking assistance, Ecabert said. “We don't look at the nuts and bolts of a case but just a broad overview to see if this is something that could have an impact on the industry,” he said.
Rojas was indicted in August 2015. There have been two superseding indictments since, including one earlier this month, claiming Rojas broke federal laws by having dozen of horses in her care illegally administered drugs on race day.
A number of other trainers, veterinarians and racing officials have pleaded to illegal activity in the FBI's investigation at Penn National. Rojas, who pleaded not guilty Aug. 25, 2015, is the first to fight the charges brought by the federal grand jury and assistant U.S. Attorney William Behe.
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