Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013 | 8:18 a.m.
A banker who stood up against an online gambling operation was the star of an anti-money-laundering conference in Las Vegas on Monday.
Compliance officer Cathy Scharf told an auditorium full of aghast colleagues about her experiences at a Utah bank that illegally processed at least $200 million for the offshore gambling sites PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker.
She said her bosses told her the bank would fail without the illegal income and brought in criminal lawyers to threaten her with arrest if she told on them.
Scharf ultimately worked with federal regulators to expose SunFirst Bank's partnership with the sites. She said other banks may also be caught up in similar offshore gambling operations. After all, banks need deposits.
Her colleagues at the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists conference congratulated her on her bravery. Their chief concern, however, seemed to be how well federal authorities protected her.
"That to me is the ultimate intimidation factor. A set of lawyers come in and say you can't cooperate," said Dennis Lormel, CEO of the Virginia-based financial investigations company DML Associates.
Scharf likes to say that she was in the wrong place at the right time. She took the job at SunFirst, in the depths of the recession, moving to St. George, Utah, from Las Vegas. She found out during her first week that her new employers were dealing primarily in illegal business.
"They just told me," she said. "And also, I could see from the stacks of slips going in and out."
Whenever a gambler transferred funds to one of the offshore card sites, the money went through the small Utah bank. The bank was making $400,000 a month in transaction fees, Scharf said, violating a 2006 law that makes it a federal crime to knowingly accept payment for illegal internet gambling.
On Monday, Scharf wore black leather cowboy boots and a shy smile. She told the darkened room that she felt like an outsider from her first day on the job, both because she was a stranger in the town of 75,000, and because it was her job to keep the bank in compliance with the law.
"They wanted to keep making money so they could bring the bank back," she said. "My frame of mind was just shoot me and put me out of my misery."
With the support of colleagues, she hired a lawyer, started a diary of her travails, and began working with federal authorities. It was a scary time. During one weekend trip back to Las Vegas, Scharf saw a yellow Lamborghini shoot by her. The driver was one of the honchos at the bank.
"All I could do was shut my eyes," she said.
In 2012, the bank's vice chairman went to prison for his role in the scheme.
Others in the industry credit Scharf with spurring a raft of new policies, including increased attention to these kinds of operations by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
"She stopped potentially hundreds of millions of dollars that were coming through that bank, and she tightened up the industry as a result," said Daniel Wager, head of due diligence at TD Bank in New York.
But Scharf doubts that these increased safeguards have stopped other banks from doing business with illegal gambling companies. After all, offshore sites still cater to U.S. poker players. She's just glad she no longer has a role in the ongoing fight over the legality of Internet gambling.
"You just have a huge burden lifted from you once you can tell your story," she said.