A jury in United States District Court in Harrisburg, Pa., has convicted Thoroughbred trainer Murray Rojas on 14 of 21 counts brought against her by the U.S. attorney's office in a wide-ranging FBI criminal investigation into corruption at nearby Penn National racetrack. Their verdict came Friday evening after day-long deliberations that followed a nine-day trial.
The jury found Rojas not guilty on six counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, but guilty on 13 counts of misbranding of prescription drugs and one count of conspiracy on that charge.
According to assistant U.S. attorney William Behe, who prosecuted the case on behalf of the federal government, each count is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
The charges involve races run at Penn National from 2009 to 2013. Rojas, two-time leading trainer at the Grantville, Pa., track, was found to have conspired with veterinarians to have horses in her care treated on race day with a variety of therapeutic medications that are not permitted within 24 hours of a race. The treatments, some of which according to testimony could not be detected in post-race screening performed by Pennsylvania's drug-testing laboratory, were concealed through backdating of invoices and falsification of veterinary forms filed with the Pennsylvania Racing Commission.
Four veterinarians who pleaded guilty for their part in the scheme and cooperated with prosecutors are awaiting sentencing. Others, including a trainer, racing office official and clocker, have pleaded guilty and were sentenced.
The government alleged the actions by Rojas constituted wire fraud – a federal crime – because purse money earned by her stable in the applicable races was transferred electronically by out-of-state banks into Pennsylvania. The jury voted not guilty on those counts.
Both sides claimed victory with the jury's decision.
“I am thrilled with the jury's verdict in this case,” Behe told the Paulick Report. “The overwhelming majority of individuals involved in horse racing are honest and abide by the rules. The betting public expects that. When you are able to put together a case against individuals who systematically and repeatedly break the rules by drugging their horses, it should not be a verdict that causes concern in the racing community. It should be one they welcome with open arms because I am confident the majority of the racing community has no time for people like Rojas who abuse the rules and cheat to win.”
Peter Ecabert, general counsel for the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association – which formed a legal defense fund to help Rojas – issued a statement to radio host Steve Byk calling wire fraud the “core and heart of the government's case” and that “the attorney for Ms. Rojas considers this decision a resounding victory for not only Rojas but also for all horsemen.”
Robert Goldman, attorney for Rojas, plans to appeal the misbranding convictions.
“I can't blame the defense for claiming victory,” Behe said in response to the HBPA statement. “I would if I lost on 66 percent of charges. I see this verdict as a resounding validation of the government's position. The defense said all along these were not federal charges and did not belong in federal court.
“Wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud is a nuanced criminal offense that prosecutors and defense attorneys have spent years trying to understand,” Behe added. “I can understand why a jury might have questions. The heart of this case was the notion that the defendant cheated regularly and consistently by having her vet administer drugs on race day. The jury found that to be true without a doubt and it was a resounding validation of our theory that this was appropriately brought as a federal criminal offense.”
During the course of the trial, evidence was presented indicating other trainers at Penn National were illegally treating horses on race day, including Stephanie Beattie, who cooperated with the FBI to the extent that she wore a secret recording device. A spokesman for the track issued the following statement: “Penn National is in the process of analyzing the trial testimony and verdict that was rendered this week in Harrisburg. Until that process is completed, we have no additional comment at this time.”
Behe declined to comment on whether the investigation into Penn National is ongoing.
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