Trooper expected to aid state against Tocchet

Updated: August 2, 2006, 4:41 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

The gambling case against former NHL star Rick Tocchet could take a significant step forward Thursday when a New Jersey state trooper accused of running a multimillion-dollar sports betting operation with Tocchet is expected to plead guilty.

The attorney for one of the men involved with the case said he anticipates James Harney, an eight-year veteran of the State Police, will cooperate with the state in its case against Tocchet and, possibly, James Ulmer as part of a plea agreement. Edwin Jacobs Jr., the attorney representing Ulmer, also told ESPN.com on Wednesday that Harney's plea agreement has been anticipated for some time.

Ulmer is a South Jersey resident described by investigators as a "sitter" who funneled wagers to Harney.

Harney resigned from the New Jersey State Police on Wednesday. In his letter of resignation, which was posted on his attorney's Web site, Harney said that "my personal judgment has been severely flawed" and he is "sorry for the humiliation and disgrace that I have caused to the Division of State Police." Craig Mitnick, Harney's attorney, declined to comment further.

Tocchet could not be reached Wednesday. His attorney, Kevin Marino, declined comment.

Tocchet, an assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes under hockey great Wayne Gretzky when word of Operation Slapshot broke in February, is charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. Authorities say that Harney was a bartender at Philly Legends in the South Philadelphia Holiday Inn when he first met Tocchet, who was then playing for the Flyers.

Authorities allege that the pair started the gambling operation five years ago, with Tocchet financing the operation and the trooper accepting bets, sometimes while patrolling the New Jersey Turnpike.

Jacobs described the trooper as the state's likely "insider witness." Harney, however, is expected to get prison time as part of his sentence in the plea deal.

"Harney has been cooperating and negotiating almost since the outset," Jacobs said. "So it was just a matter of time before he appeared in court with a plea agreement. Look, people get charged with criminal events. They hire good lawyers. They try to figure out as early as possible whether the case is defensible. If it is not, your alternative is a plea agreement."

Jacobs acknowledged that he has spoken with the attorney general about his own client, but declined comment on whether he was close to reaching a plea deal for Ulmer. The state is not believed to have discussed a plea deal for Tocchet.

Jeff Lamm, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, confirmed that Harney is to appear in state Superior Court in Burlington County on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. ET. Judge Thomas Smith is scheduled to preside over the hearing.

Lamm refused comment when asked about the proposed plea agreement.

Those close to the investigation said Wednesday that the agreement with Harney sets the stage for the attorney general to formally bring the case before a state grand jury, most likely within the next two months. It presumably would be another six to 12 months before the case would go to trial.

During the final stages of the college football and NFL postseasons in late 2005 and early 2006, the gambling operation allegedly had taken in $1.7 million in bets, according to New Jersey officials. Janet Jones Gretzky, wife of the hockey great, allegedly had wagered $500,000 through the betting ring late in the football season, including $75,000 in wagers on the Super Bowl. New Jersey law enforcement officials previously told ESPN.com that she was among the "fact witnesses" in the case and had not committed a crime under state law.

Authorities have said Jones Gretzky could be called to testify when the grand jury convenes to determine whether indictments should be brought in the case against Tocchet. She likely would be questioned about whether Tocchet acted as her bookmaker, as well as if he earned any money from her wagers or if he ever encouraged her to bet.

Several NHL players are alleged to have placed bets with the gambling ring. According to reports from the NHL, however, the league's internal investigation has determined that the players didn't wager on hockey games.

While the allegations have been an embarrassment to the NHL, New Jersey law enforcement is equally troubled by the idea that a state trooper would be running a gambling operation from his patrol car. Authorities placed liens on two houses owned by Harney. Among the assets seized from the trooper's residence were Rolex watches valued at more than $250,000 and nine plasma televisions, two of which were located in a bathroom.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.