Artichoke Joe’s Casino Fined $8 Million for Loan Sharking by FinCEN

Artichoke Joe's Casino FinCEN Fine

The fine is the largest in the history of a California poker club.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the U.S. Treasury Department imposed an $8 million fine on Artichoke Joe’s Poker, a California card room, for “loan sharking”. The San Bruno-based Artichoke Joe’s is accused of violating the Bank Secrecy Act.

Artichoke Joe’s Casino is one of roughly 90 brick-and-mortar poker clubs in the State of California. The card room has 17 traditional poker tables, along with several dozen other card tables. The club was opened in 1916 in San Bruno, a Bay Area city about 12 miles from downtown San Francisco.

The club was accused of “willful violation of anti-money laundering controls”. Calling the fine significant, FinCEN said that the amount reflected the “duration and severity” of the violations. The fine is the largest ever for a poker room, since gaming violations first came under the purview of FinCEN about two decades ago.

FinCEN on Loan Sharking Claims

FinCEN’s Acting Director, Jamal El-Hindi, said in a prepared statement, “For years, Artichoke Joe’s turned a blind eye to loan sharking, suspicious transfers of high-value gaming chips, and flagrant criminal activity that occurred in plain sight.”

Artichoke Joe’s Casion was raided by the feds in March 2011, which led to a racketeering indictment. In the 2011 raid, two people were charged with loan sharking. The previous raid had a role to play in the size of the fine.

Loan Sharks Operated in Plain Sight

Despite the previous raid, the government financial crimes division said Artichoke Joe’s management appeared to look the other way as crimes were committed. The report added, “There were several instances in which loan sharks provided AJC chips to customers on the gaming floor within plain sight of AJC employees.”

Two years ago, FinCEN imposed its first-ever fine against a California card club. In that instance, Hawaiian Gardens Casino of Hawaiian Gardens, California, was fined $2.8 million for repeated money laundering violations.

Bicycle Club Raid

The Bicycle Club, a famous 185-table, Los Angeles-area casino located in Bell Gardens, was raided in April 2017 and shut down briefly by the feds. The Bicycle Club raid was conducted alongside the IRS Criminal Investigation unit and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. In all, nine state and federal agencies were involved in the Bicycle Club investigation.

The Bicycle Club at one time was partly owned by the federal government, from 1990 to 1996. Eight part-owners of the club were charged with crimes and forced to place ownership in a special US Marshal’s account. By the time the government’s part was sold to commercial interests in 1996, the US federal government had made tens of millions of dollars in the casino business.

Artichoke Joe’s Could Lose Gaming License

In the case of Artichoke Joe’s, federal officials said off the record that the casino could lose its gaming license, due to repeated offenses. Loss of the license would bring to an end a business which has lasted 101 years in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the 1990s, Artichoke Joe’s became famous for its opposition to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) spur lines expansion plan. The opposition failed and ground was broken on the San Bruno line in 1997.

Jamal El-Hindi on “Risk of Exploitation”

Jamal El-Hindi wanted to send the message that FinCEN is serious about ending money laundering and loan sharking in the poker clubs, which often are overlooked in comparison to the large tribal casinos and commercial casino resorts.

El-Hindi added in his statement, “Casinos, card clubs and others in the gaming industry should consider their risk of exploitation by criminal elements, and understand that they will be held accountable if they disregard anti-money laundering and illicit finance laws.”

Artichoke Joe’s Name

Artichoke Joe’s was founded by¬†Joseph Sammut in 1916 under the name Joe’s Pool Parlor. Joe Sammut ran a gambling service via phone, mostly on horse races. Joe was famous for accepting any wager, no matter how big the wager was. When someone asked him how he would pay off large losses, if he happened to lose, Joe is said to have quipped, “In artichoke leaves.”

The name stuck, so in 1921, “Artichoke” Joe Sammut changed the name of the establishment to Artichoke Joe’s. The pool hall survived through the Prohibition Era and later the Great Depression. In the post-WWII years, Artichoke Joe’s became a fixture in the San Bruno area. These days, the club is owned by Dennis Sammut, a descendant of Joseph Sammut’s.