With gambling’s rise, the story of downfall

The Philadelphia Inquirer
by Jennifer Lin, Inquirer Staff Writer

James Bryan was a gambling omnivore.

Blackjack or slots at Harrah’s Philadelphia, sports betting, scratch-off lottery tickets – he played them all.

To pay for his gambling binges, Bryan, 45, traded copper for cash. He did not peddle the innards of old buildings, but new, shiny coils of wire.

A few times a week, he would drive to Accurate Metals on East Baltimore Pike in Lansdowne in his black Chevy pickup, owned by his employer, Wescott Electric.

He would unload spindles from the truck bed, some still in shrink wrap.

Inside a sooty garage, after the copper was weighed, a cashier would calculate the trade-in value and slide Bryan a stack of bills.

Friendly and flush with money, he thought nothing of peeling off a twenty as a tip.

Over 17 months, Bryan made 164 trips to the recycling center. He sold almost 100 tons of copper, with a retail value of about $750,000.

And none of it was his.

As Bryan later admitted to police, he stole it.

The casino industry argues that the vast majority of people who gamble do so for fun.

For every 100 people, gambling experts report, 97 will win some or lose some at the casino without incident.

And then there are players like Bryan.

Gambling for them is an addiction that can lead to crime. And in Philadelphia, it is a temptation that is getting closer and closer to home.

Since legalizing gambling in 2004, Pennsylvania has been on the forefront of making gambling as convenient as possible. The state’s 12 casinos draw local residents more so than tourists.

A decade ago, a gambler like Bryan would have to travel to Atlantic City or Las Vegas to feed his habit, or north on I-95 to Connecticut’s big tribal resorts, or south to Delaware’s racetrack casinos.

But today, gamblers in Philadelphia and surrounding counties have plenty of options. There are Parx in Bensalem, SugarHouse in Philadelphia, Harrah’s Philadelphia in Chester, and the Valley Forge Casino in King of Prussia.

A fifth could be on the way. The state’s Gaming Control Board is reviewing bids for another casino in the city.

The competition for that license has focused on which project could generate the most revenue for the state, while doing the least financial harm to existing casinos.

Far less attention, according to those who oppose gambling, has been placed on the social impact of another casino.

Pennsylvania sets aside a sliver of gaming revenue – $4.9 million last year – to treat and reach out to problem gamblers. But no government agency in the state or Philadelphia has determined if gambling is causing a rise in problem gambling or crime.

Some public health and law enforcement experts, however, see troubling signs.

Since 2013, 11 people in Philadelphia and the surrounding seven counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been charged with theft to support their gambling habits, according to an informal survey of prosecutors by The Inquirer.

“There’s a trend here, and it’s disturbing to me,” said Marc Furber, chief deputy district attorney in Bucks County, who oversees economic crimes.

Five of the cases were in Bucks County, home to Parx. Of those, all but one involved middle-aged women, including a bank employee and the financial secretary for a nonprofit ambulance service.

The common thread: They had access to other people’s money and cravings to gamble so fierce that they would destroy relationships to feed habits.

“We see massive, massive losses that cause extreme hardship,” Furber added. “The ripple effect is horrible.”

The problem can be seen across Pennsylvania.

In April, a 65-year-old controller who blew $800,000 in 14 months at Sands Casino in Bethlehem was charged with writing $1.8 million in bad checks from her Allentown employer.

In March, a longtime police chief in Washington County in Western Pennsylvania was accused of using drug-investigation money to gamble at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino.

In February, the chief operating officer of a gas-drilling company in Pittsburgh pleaded guilty in federal court to embezzling $9 million – all for gambling at nearby casinos.

And in January, James Bryan was arrested for stealing from his employer of 27 years, Wescott Electric.

High expectations
In Collingdale, a Republican stronghold and racially diverse working-class town of 8,500, Bryan was a political fixture.

A project manager for Wescott Electric, he was elected to the borough council in 1994 and, for almost 13 years, served as chairman of the finance committee. He volunteered for a fire company and served as finance chairman of the local Republican Party.

Mayor Frank Kelly, 79, the longest-serving mayor in Pennsylvania, had high expectations for his weekend golfing buddy.

“Everyone figured he’d take my place,” said Kelly, Collingdale’s mayor for 41 years.

As a political stepping-stone, Bryan had his sights on becoming a magisterial district judge. He was so highly regarded that both parties put him on their primary tickets in the spring of 2013.

On June 28, Bryan traveled to the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg to take a state examination to be certified as a district judge.

He felt confident. After several failed attempts to pass the exam, he sent a text message to his boss, Joseph McColgan, saying he thought he had passed this time.

McColgan, 53, ran Wescott Electric with James Wescott, 71. It was a family business, started by Wescott’s father after World War II.

Situated in an old 19th-century rug mill on the banks of the Chester Creek in Aston, the firm mostly handled big government electrical projects, generating about $10 million a year in revenue.

Bryan went to work for the two men when he was 18. Over time, he became part of the trusted inner circle.

Business blended easily with friendship.

Wescott and McColgan helped to rewire Bryan’s first house. Family birthdays at the Bryan home included McColgan, known as “Boss Joe” to the Bryan children.

McColgan said he saw Bryan through dark times, too: the death of his 18-month-old twin son in 2005 and a difficult divorce a few years later.

The day Bryan went to Harrisburg, a purchasing agent at Wescott, Theresa Davidson, approached McColgan. She was troubled. Something was off, she told him.

She had a packing slip and invoice for bare copper wire for a current job. The foreman on the job, however, said he had not ordered it.

There were other slips as well.

All had been submitted by Bryan.

McColgan was heading out the door but told Davidson to put everything into a spreadsheet. They’d talk about it later.

When he returned to the office, he found Davidson waiting for him at the bottom of the steps by the front door.

She was in tears.

No inkling
In the end, gambling became almost a second job for Bryan, a divorced father.

He shelled out $1,000 at a time for scratch-off lottery tickets that he bought in bulk at a corner store, prosecutors said.

Two or three times a week, he gambled at Harrah’s, losing $1,000 to $2,000 a visit.

He hid his habit from friends.

“Probably no one knew him better,” said Kelly, his friend the mayor.

They golfed every weekend, often at Bryan’s course, the private Springhaven Country Club. With two other golfers, they took vacations to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Kelly said he knew that his friend sometimes bet on sports and played the numbers. But he said he knew nothing about his constant forays to Harrah’s.

“No one had an inkling,” Kelly said.

Least of all McColgan.

The weekend after he was tipped off by his purchasing agent, McColgan worked nonstop poring through years of invoices.

He enlisted his wife, Maryann, and daughter Ashley to help.

In a conference room, the three dug through receipts, bank checks, and packing slips. They slept little.

By Monday morning, McColgan had calculated that at least $800,000 was missing. The stealing stretched back a decade, long before Harrah’s opened its doors to local gamblers in 2007.

McColgan summoned Bryan to a meeting. With his business partner at his side, he showed him a spreadsheet and pile of invoices.

“Can you explain this?” McColgan asked.

Faced with the evidence, Bryan “admitted everything,” McColgan recalled.

McColgan slid a termination letter across the table for Bryan to sign.

Bryan’s authoritative demeanor did not slip, McColgan remembered. He did, however, acknowledge that he had a gambling problem and seemed nervous about the prospect of prison.

“Don’t turn me in,” McColgan recalled him saying.

‘Stabbed in the heart’
In July, the matter was referred to the Aston Police Department. Detectives trained in financial crimes found other fraudulent transactions.

Checks were made out to businesses for supplies on jobs that did not exist. Bryan would intercept the checks and cash them at a “no-questions-asked” check-cashing service in Philadelphia, detectives said.

On Jan. 28, after a six-month investigation, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan asked McColgan to meet him at his office.

In his head, McColgan calculated that Bryan may have stolen more than $1 million, possibly as much as $2 million.

The truth was harsher: From 2003 to 2013, Bryan was accused of stealing $2,919,361.50.

He started out small, taking $40,497.75 in 2003, before hitting a peak in 2010 of $538,841.18.

Joseph Ryan, chief of the office’s criminal investigation division, told McColgan that Bryan apparently eased off in 2011, fearing others were onto him. That year, he took only $172,768.18.

That’s when Bryan switched to copper, stealing wire worth $736,723.23 in 2012 and 2013.

The news left McColgan dumbstruck. “It’s like getting stabbed in the heart,” he said.

With the district attorney at his side, McColgan had to break the news to his partner, who was in Florida. He called Wescott and put him on a speaker phone.

“Jim, sit down,” McColgan advised.

He repeated the sum.

The room fell silent.

Wescott could not speak. Hanging up, he said: “I have to go.”

At a recent pretrial hearing in Courtroom 6 at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, McColgan and his wife arrived well before 9 a.m. They took a front-row seat, just behind the prosecutors’ table.

Arriving alone, Bryan, dressed in a gray business suit, sat as far away as possible.

Neither has spoken to the other since July.

Released on $500,000 bail, Bryan is under house arrest, and his movements are monitored electronically. Approached at his home, Bryan declined to discuss his case.

His lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, said in a statement that Bryan was seeking treatment for his gambling addiction. Under terms of his bail, Bryan is only allowed to take his two sons to school on certain days, perform community-service work through the county, attend counseling, and visit his lawyer.

Bryan, Diamondstein said, is “extremely remorseful . . . ashamed and embarrassed.”

Bryan is expected to enter a guilty plea July 14. He faces 10 counts of forgery, three counts of theft, and one count of receiving stolen property. Each felony theft count carries a possible sentence of 31/2 to seven years.

Diamondstein said Bryan accepted “complete and sole responsibility for his actions.”

“While the casinos may have helped facilitate the loss, it was Mr. Bryan that committed the acts that lead to his arrest,” Diamondstein said. “He will do everything he can – for the rest of his life if need be – to win back the trust of all of the people his actions have hurt.”
[email protected]

215-854-5659 @j_linq


Published: June 14, 2014 — 2:07 PM EDT | Updated: June 15, 2014 — 1:09 AM EDT
The Philadelphia Inquirer