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Debt finally topples a Las Vegas high roller

Omar Siddiqui, a top executive at Fry's Electronics, was coveted and coddled by Las Vegas casinos. Now he faces fraud charges.

February 15, 2009|Richard C. Paddock

SAN JOSE AND LAS VEGAS — Omar Siddiqui was well-known on the Strip.

Casinos vied with one another to lure the high-stakes Bay Area gambler to their tables. They flew him to Las Vegas on private jets. They put him up free in opulent suites. And they extended him millions of dollars in credit on his signature alone. He was good for business.

Siddiqui, who made $225,000 a year as a top Fry's Electronics executive, once lost $8 million in a day.

It was not Siddiqui's only debt or even his largest. Court records indicate that the 43-year-old businessman gambled away as much as $167 million at casinos over the last decade. Yet even as he amassed huge IOUs, casinos around the country continued to lend him millions more.

Siddiqui's debts ultimately caught up with him, and he now stands accused of masterminding one of California's biggest frauds. His case provides a view into the rarefied world of big-time gamblers and the lengths casinos go to attract them to their tables.

"He was playing about as high as you can get," said Marcia Hartman, a former Las Vegas casino employee who said she saw Siddiqui in action. "That's what the casinos are looking for. They are going to give a big player, a whale, anything in the world he wants. From an ego point of view, he soaked it up."

Siddiqui's high-wire act began to unravel in October. A colleague went into his unoccupied office and found spreadsheets detailing millions of dollars in secret payments Siddiqui allegedly received from firms that sold products to Fry's. The co-worker scooped them up and took them to the Internal Revenue Service.

On Dec. 19, two dozen federal agents descended on Fry's corporate offices in San Jose and marched Siddiqui away in handcuffs. Siddiqui, the IRS contends, financed his gambling by taking at least $65.6 million in kickbacks. Charged with nine counts of money laundering and wire fraud, he faces 140 years in prison. Fired by Fry's, the onetime computer salesman pleaded not guilty last month. He has declined to comment.

Hartman and other gaming industry critics say the casinos are complicit for letting Siddiqui play far beyond his means.

"They built their own outlaw," said Hartman, who also was a high-stakes gambler who wound up in debt and facing prosecution. "They coveted him, they coddled him, they gave him the tools to become what he is. They gave him so much credit, his alternative was to go to jail or to steal. Either way, you go to jail."

Casino representatives say it's not their responsibility.

"If a person has a million or 2 million in his account, how are we supposed to know where it came from?" asked Yvette Monet, a spokeswoman for the MGM Grand, which owns several casinos Siddiqui frequented. "It could be money he inherited from his mother."

The allegations came as a shock to the owners of Fry's, who had thought so highly of their longtime employee that they had given him one of their top jobs -- and lent him $10.1 million.

"He has a strong ability to persuade," said spokesman Manuel Valerio, who worked in the Fry's corporate offices with Siddiqui. "He carried himself as a confident individual, a businessperson with acumen."

Days after Siddiqui's arrest, the privately held company sued to get its money back. Valerio declined to discuss details of the loan.

Short and balding, Ausaf Umar Siddiqui -- who goes by Omar -- was an immaculate dresser fond of expensive suits. He owned a Ferrari, a Mercedes and a Palo Alto town house. But there were plenty of signs something was amiss.

Although Siddiqui may have won millions at the tables, at least seven casinos in Las Vegas, New Jersey and Connecticut have sued him since 1999, seeking to recover at least $33 million.

The district attorney's office in Clark County, Nev., prosecuted him in 2003 for not paying $12 million in gambling debts. Before his arrest, Siddiqui was paying restitution and had whittled his debt to $6 million, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Bernard Zadrowski. But now, without money to make payments, Siddiqui faces reinstatement of felony charges.

"In terms of cases we prosecuted, he's one of the bigger ones," Zadrowski said. "He is in the top four or five in terms of the dollar amount."

In 2006, the IRS slapped an $18.5-million lien on his property for unpaid taxes. The state filed a $3-million lien last year.

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'Oozing arrogance'

It is unclear when Siddiqui, Fry's vice president of merchandising and operations, allegedly began receiving kickbacks. The IRS says he persuaded Fry's to let him bypass the independent brokers who usually supply products, then demanded that vendors pay him commissions as high as 31% through a "fraudulent company" he set up in 1998. The sole purpose of PC International was to receive kickbacks, the IRS charged.

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