Posted on: April 16, 2022, 08:02h.
Last updated on: April 16, 2022, 08:09h.
The trial of a former Indiana casino executive is expected to start in an Indianapolis federal court on Monday. And on Friday, as the judge in the case ruled on whether certain evidence could be presented, prosecutors sought to quash efforts to get an image from former President Trump’s inauguration introduced into the case.
Two images from then-President Trump’s 2017 inauguration have been filed as evidence by John Keeler, a former Indiana casino executive facing federal charges related to an illegal campaign contribution scheme. The image on the right shows Rod Ratcliff (circled), CEO and founder of both Centaur Gaming and Spectacle Entertainment. Ratcliff was Keeler’s boss at both companies. Prosecutors claim the photos are irrelevant to the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on Monday. (Image: USCourts.Gov)
John Keeler, who served as a vice president and general counsel for Centaur Gaming and then Spectacle Entertainment, faces charges of violating campaign finance law, making false statements, falsifying documents, and allowing false tax returns to be filed. Prosecutors allege Keeler, while he was an executive with Centaur, played a key role in ensuring money from the gaming company made it to the 2016 congressional campaign of Brent Waltz, a former Indiana state senator.
Waltz, who lost the Republican primary for that race nearly six years ago, entered a guilty plea in the case this past week. In doing so, he avoided going to trial alongside Keeler.
Authorities say a political consultant working with Waltz met with an unnamed co-conspirator, listed in court documents as “Individual A” and identified as Centaur’s CEO in 2015. That matches the title of Rod Ratcliff, a longtime former Indiana gaming executive who has not been charged in the case. A plan emerged from that meeting to direct Centaur funds to the Waltz campaign.
The plan involved the consultant, Kelley Rogers, to invoice Centaur for research reports that were never done. Rogers, Waltz, and another consultant, Chip O’Neil, then recruited individuals to donate to the congressional campaign. After Keeler signed off on the invoices and Centaur paid the consultants, the consultants then used those funds to refund the contributors. However, their names remained on campaign contribution lists.
Prosecutors claim Keeler, himself a former state lawmaker, knew the invoices were bogus but still allowed the company to write off the payments on tax returns.
A jury of 12 with four alternates will be seated for the trial, which is expected to last a couple of weeks. Keeler faces up to 20 years, if found guilty of the falsifying corporate records charge.
Keeler lost his job and his Indiana gaming license after he was indicted by a grand jury in 2020. A separate indictment last year led to the tax charges.
Ratcliff left the gaming industry last year after settling with the Indiana Gaming Commission, which began investigating Spectacle Entertainment – Ratcliff’s most recent company – in January 2020 after it became aware of the federal investigation.
Centaur Gaming operated Indiana Grand and Hoosier Park, two Central Indiana racinos. Ratcliff sold Centaur to Caesars Entertainment in 2018. He then established Spectacle, purchased the Majestic Star Casino in Gary and lobbied to build a land-based casino in the Northwest Indiana city. That casino, Hard Rock Northern Indiana, is now owned and operated by Hard Rock International.
Prosecutors Want Trump Pics Out of Trial
On Friday, federal prosecutors filed a motion before US District Judge James R. Sweeney II seeking to keep Keeler’s defense team from entering two pictures from Trump’s 2017 inauguration into evidence. The defense listed the photo in their exhibit list submitted on Thursday evening.
The first is a wide-angle shot of Trump giving his inaugural address with a crowd behind him on the platform at the US Capitol. The second is a grainy image that zooms in on the upper left corner of the first image. In that picture, a man appearing to be Ratcliff is circled.
The images were posted in a court filing Saturday.
Prosecutors said in their motion that Keeler’s defense team did not share the images with them before submission. The prosecutors argue that the images are not relevant to the case and may lead to the defense claiming Keeler is being “vindictively prosecuted.” They added that jurors may “focus on the political nature of the photo,” which may let their personal feelings interfere with their deliberations.
Admitting into evidence the mere fact that Individual A attended President Trump’s Inauguration is likely to stir up personal political opinions and induce the jury to decide this case on an emotional basis, rather than on the evidence presented to them,” the prosecution claimed. “And while this case is about campaign finance, it is not about politics.”
The US Attorney’s Office also wants Sweeney to prohibit Keeler’s team from “any such evidence or argument the purpose of which is to achieve jury nullification.”
Judge Allows Testimony from Other Scheme
Also on Friday, Sweeney issued a split decision ruling when it came to prosecutors introducing evidence during the upcoming trial.
Keeler faces two charges of allowing a false tax return to be filed, but only one of those is tied to the campaign contribution scheme with Waltz. The second tax return occurred a year later and involved a different scheme involving Rogers directing money to the Greater Indianapolis Republican Finance Committee (GIRFCO).
The government has evidence indicating Keeler told a GIRFCO fundraiser that he should be able to help them and then met with Rogers some time afterward. On the same day as the meeting with Rogers, prosecutors say Keeler told Centaur staff to send $15,000 to Rogers, who then sent it to GIRFCO.
Sweeney’s ruling said the evidence would be allowed but that the court would offer instructions to jurors, at Keeler’s request, giving them parameters on how they can consider it.
Centaur Limo Deals Tossed, For Now
However, the judge denied the prosecution’s efforts to introduce other evidence dating back more than a decade, for now at least. That evidence focused on Five Star, a limousine company of which Waltz was a part-owner.
Authorities have an individual who would testify that Waltz landed a contract with Centaur for up to $30,000 a month, which the individual would claim was five times higher than any other contract the company had. The individual would also testify that Ratcliff would purchase the limousine company from Waltz and his associates, with Keeler representing Ratcliff in the purchase.
Waltz allegedly made $100,000 off the sale.
The government seeks to show the purchase was a sweetheart deal in order to win favor with Waltz. However, Sweeney in his order said prosecutors do not have any evidence showing Keeler was involved in the monthly contract discussions. Further, even though Keeler negotiated the purchase, the government said it did not have any information on the true value of Five Star.
Sweeney ruled that the testimony would be too prejudicial unless prosecutors found additional evidence showing the Five Star’s revenue and proceeds in deals with Centaur were inflated.