Michigan Man Sentenced to Probation for Embezzling Charitable Poker Game Funds

Illustrated map of Michigan

David Lee Thiese, Sr., of Flint, MI received five years of probation, fines, and a restitution order for embezzling nearly $37,000 of his church’s charity-poker profits over a two-year span.

The Seventh Circuit Court in Flint, MI, has sentenced David Lee Thiese, Sr., to five years of probation. Thiese pled guilty in February to a single felony charge of embezzlement in connection with charitable-gaming profits intended for his church.

Thiese, 79, was arrested last year as part of an ongoing investigation by the Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) into suspected illegal activities occurring throughout Michigan’s charitable-gaming offerings. The investigation that led to Thiese’s arrest and eventual guilty plea on February 22 centered on the activities at three so-called “floating” poker rooms in the Flint area, Gloria’s Poker Palace, Lucky’s Poker Room, and Pocket Aces.

Venues have been closed

All three venues offered frequent one-day poker events in association with numerous Flint-area charities and civic organizations; all three have since been closed by the state for ongoing and multiple violations, following investigations by the Michigan Attorney General’s office and the MGCB. Thiese is the 15th person associated in some form with the three locations to plead guilty to charitable gaming crimes since 2014.

Thiese admitted in his plea deal to diverting $36,862 of money intended to go to his church, St. Pius X Catholic Church and School of Flint, for his personal use. Thiese was listed as the official chairperson for 28 Flint-area charity poker events held between 2012 and 2014, which the investigation showed raised nearly $60,000 for St. Pius X’s church, school and other church-affiliated organizations.

Instead, working through a church-authorized bank account under his personal control, Thiese reported and forwarded only $22,900 in proceeds to his church. Michigan law requires the entire net proceeds of a charitable gaming event be devoted exclusively to the charity’s purposes. US states where charitable-gaming events are authorized require individual approval for each charity-themed event.

Faced 15-year sentence

In addition to the five-year probation sentence and the restitution order regarding the stolen $36,862, Thiese was assessed $698 in fines and court costs plus $600 in probation supervision fees, due at his sentencing hearing on May 16. Thiese faced as much as 15 years in prison on the single felony charge of embezzlement between $20,000 and $50,000.

“It’s so important for charities to maintain proper oversight and accounting practices to prevent financial crime,” said Richard Kalm, the Michigan Gaming Control Board’s executive director. “It’s unfortunate when MGCB investigators review event results and discover fraud, but we are here to help charities when a crime happens.”

Michigan is one of a large number of states where charitable gaming activities are allowed for fundraising. The licensed charity activities in these states became regulated activities decades ago and first covered only such offerings as bingo, raffles, and pull-tab tickets. Over the past couple of decades, however, particularly in the US’s Northeast and Midwest, many of these states have allowed charitable gaming activities to offer more, including poker and other casino-style table games.

Michigan in particular has experienced controversy about the entire charitable-games market. For a decade and more, the niche experienced a marked increase in illegal activity. This involved insider crimes such as Thiese’s embezzlement, but also included a growing number of armed robberies, including a couple of related murders, at the light-security venues.

As a result of this, plus pressure from Michigan’s prominent tribal casinos over such questionable competition, the state began reevaluating its entire charitable-gaming framework in 2013. That in turn led to stricter guidelines being passed by the state’s legislature in 2015. Those tighter rules have reduced many of the abuses that occurred earlier this decade.

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