Two Batavia firefighters knew the odds were stacked against them when Genesee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Mullen began investigating allegations that they had illegal second jobs as bookies.
Mullen reportedly was a gambler himself and had often placed bets on college and professional football games with one of the firefighters.
“When I heard that Sgt. Mullen was investigating, I thought he was being a hypocrite and that the Genesee County Sheriff’s [Office] should be looking to see if he was gambling while on duty,” Brian Bordinaro said of the investigation that ended firefighting careers for him and Greg Phillips.
Genesee County Sheriff Gary T. Maha said Mullen was investigated for alleged gambling, but before any departmental charges could be considered, the sergeant retired last year. The sheriff also pointed out that while it is illegal to be a bookie, people placing bets are not breaking the law.
“We were conducting an internal investigation once the allegations were brought to our attention by an attorney for one of the firefighters,” Maha said. “It’s not against the law to place a bet. However, it would be a violation of our department rules and regulations. It was our understanding the most recent bets were over four to five years ago.”
Bordinaro, Phillips and Phillips’ brother-in-law, Lance Engel, were sentenced Tuesday in Batavia City Court to three years’ probation and 13 weekends in a work-release program after pleading guilty to reduced class-A misdemeanor charges of promoting gambling. The plea deal required them to resign from the public payroll. Prosecutors said each man made tens of thousands of dollars from gambling operations.
Bordinaro, 44, squeaked into retirement with just barely 20 years in the state pension system, enough to give him half-pay.
Phillips was not so lucky. The 40-year-old former firefighter, who was Mullen’s alleged bookie, had 18½ years of service and reportedly has found a new career.
Engel, 42, resigned from his job as a chef at a state nursing home for veterans in Batavia and now works elsewhere in the food preparation industry.
If the three men had been convicted of the original charges – dozens of felony gambling counts – they would have faced up to 20 years behind bars.
That did not happen, because the case was compromised by Mullen’s prior dealings with Phillips and by the former sergeant’s subsequent failure to inform his supervisors, according to Thomas J. Keane, attorney for Bordinaro.
A private investigation revealed that Mullen had made more than 120 phone calls to Phillips, the attorney said. Mullen allegedly made the calls on cell phones that were issued through a “Verizon Wireless Law Enforcement Resource Team” contract.
The calls started in 2006, after Mullen allegedly told Phillips he wanted to begin placing bets on football games. The calls continued into 2011 and were made mostly during football season.
Keane, a retired Buffalo police lieutenant, said he hired GDY Private Investigations and that investigator Richard Donovan, a former Erie County undersheriff and Buffalo police commissioner, was able to secure the phone records and carry out interviews that established the betting relationship between Mullen and Phillips.
Mullen “was placing bets over the phone and delivered money to the defendant’s home,” Donovan stated in his report.
Donovan alerted a Genesee County Sheriff’s Office official about his findings and was told that the department was starting an internal investigation and would discuss the situation with the Genesee County District Attorney’s Office.
Maha said that if he had known about the gambling allegations involving the sergeant, he would have not allowed Mullen to head the probe.
“Mullen never brought it to our attention,” Maha said. “If he had, we would have assigned another investigator.”
The sergeant’s gambling investigation began in October 2011 and is believed to have been initiated after some friction between a fire captain and Phillips, a union steward.
“There was an issue involving overtime. Phillips was arguing it with a fire captain, and then the captain complained to the fire chief that Phillips was a bookie,” Keane said.
Greg Ireland, president of Local 896, City of Batavia Firefighters, agreed in part with that scenario.
“There were some differences between firefighters and officers over internal matters, and Phillips was very vocal,” Ireland said, adding that Mullen was threatening when he interviewed city firefighters. “While he was interviewing, he threatened their jobs and said, ‘If you don’t want to talk to me here at the firehouse, I’ll come to your house and talk to you in front of your family.’ ”
Keane insists neither Bordinaro nor Phillips ever took bets while working at the city firehouse. Prosecutors said they have evidence that the two received phone calls and texts while on city time.
In another development, Keane said he and his client have cooperated with the FBI, which is looking into the Sheriff’s Office investigation because of possible violations of law in how Mullen obtained the search warrants for the firefighters’ work lockers and residences.
Maha confirmed that the FBI requested records on the investigation and said the records had been turned over.
Efforts to reach Mullen, who now works as a school security officer at the Holley Central School District, were unsuccessful.