Dennis Blieden won the 2018 L.A. Poker Classic, one of the most prestigious stops on the World Poker Tour. Yesterday, Wednesday, June 10, 2021 the court sentenced Blieden to 79 months in prison — a little over six and a half years — for embezzling $22.7 million dollars from his employer, StyleHaul Inc.
Blieden used the money for gambling, to settle debts, and to play the cryptocurrency markets. Given the dates of his crimes, StyleHaul probably paid his entry to the LAPC without knowing it.
Blieden was able to pull off this enormous fraud thanks to his position of trust at StyleHaul.
On top of the 79 months, Blieden must also pay $22,669,979 in restitution to his victims. United States District Judge André Birotte Jr. handed the sentence down.
As controller and vice president of accounting and finance for StyleHaul Blieden had complete control over the companies bank accounts. He used this authority to wire himself money, using false bookkeeping entries to cover his tracks.
The withdrawals were either labeled as equity drawdowns to himself, or as payments to StyleHaul clients.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California issued a press release on the sentencing. In the press release, the DOJ describes how “Blieden made fraudulent entries in StyleHaul’s accounting records, falsely representing that the illegal wire transfers he made were authorized payments of money due to StyleHaul clients. […] Blieden also disguised his fraud by creating a fictitious lease in May 2018 for the rental of a condominium in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, which bore a forged signature of a StyleHaul executive.”
He was in this role from October 2015 to March 2019. At that point, the company quietly let him go. Shortly after this, StyleHaul was supposed to move to Europe under the tighter management of its umbrella company. Instead, it went into liquidation. There is no evidence, except for the timing, to suggest that Blieden’s crimes were the reason that the StyleHaul vessel sank the way it did.
Meanwhile, the F.B.I. was digging into Blieden’s affairs, and brought charges. In late-2019, Blieden pled guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Like the rest of the world, the pandemic hit the justice system hard. This might explain why it has been almost 18 months between verdict and sentencing.
In the sentencing documentation are the records of the prosecution’s arguments. In these documents, the prosecution wrote that Blieden had “breached the trust and obligations owed to the young and perhaps unsophisticated YouTube, Instagram, and other social media influencers and creators, who earned money through their work on said platforms.”
The prosecution adds that the funds “were needed to support [the clients’] families. Those clients relied upon the defendant to do his job when instead he stole millions (of dollars) from them.”
Blieden tried to mitigate his guilty plea with an appeal to a history of gambling addiction.
Blieden cites exposure to gambling in the form of spinning a dreidel for chocolate coins and learning to count by playing blackjack.
In a pre-sentencing letter, he wrote that as a teen he “without permission, took my parents’ credit cards and deposited money. I inevitably lost, then did it again. It created a lot of animosity with my parents, and they canceled the cards and hid the new ones. So I had to find other ways.”
In the rest of his 14-page account, he describes compounding his addiction with late-night poker games throughout his college years. He graduated with a degree, a heap of student debt, and a taste for amphetamines. The last he acquired trying to stay up during all-night poker games.
Winning the LAPC didn’t help. Instead, in his mind, it validated him as a top pro. This motivated him to move up in stakes and chase his ever increasing losses.
Blieden’s crimes could have come with a sentence of up to 22 years. That he only got six and change suggests that the court took his history of gambling addiction seriously.
Featured image source: Flickr by WPT