Feeding the ‘demon inside’: Ex-employee tells how and why he stole $22 million from Jaguars

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Feb. 2, 2023 began like any other morning for Amit Patel. He was sitting in his cubicle on the ground floor of EverBank Stadium, home to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Patel, a manager in the team’s financial department, was closing out the last cycle of expenses, as he did at the beginning of each month.

When Jaguars chief financial officer Mark Sirota asked Patel to come to Sirota’s office, he thought it might be to discuss a new project. But then Patel got there and Sirota lowered his voice and asked Patel to shut the door behind him. Sirota then told Patel a delegation from NFL security was in a suite upstairs waiting to talk to him.

Sirota escorted Patel through the office, then the bowels of the stadium. As they made their way to an elevator, Patel looked back and saw a contingent of human relations officials and team security trailing them. When he arrived on the fourth floor and stepped into a suite, he was met by one of the team’s lawyers and three men in suits, one of whom was sitting behind a laptop.

“I already knew they had everything on the computer in front of them. My entire gambling history,” Patel, 31, told The Athletic in an interview from his attorney’s office in Jacksonville last week.

When the NFL security team asked where Patel got the money to place the bets they had discovered, he lied. He said it was from family wealth and cryptocurrency. When they asked whether they could have access to his phone and computer, he looked to the Jaguars’ lawyer for advice, only to realize the lawyer was there to protect the team, not him. He handed his devices over and the lawyer took him for a walk around the concourse. As they walked, Patel feverishly calculated what those security officials might identify as they transferred data from his computer and phone.

When his boss later asked him for his password to the company’s virtual credit card program, Patel knew it was over. He was caught.

FBI investigators subsequently discovered that Patel, over a four-year period, had embezzled more than $22 million from the Jaguars by creating fraudulent charges on the club’s virtual credit card and then covering his tracks by sending falsified files to the team’s accounting department. Patel’s attorney said the vast majority of what he stole he gambled away via online sports gambling sites. The government said he also used the money to fund a jet-set lifestyle and to purchase vehicles, a condominium, a designer watch worth over $95,000 and other extravagances.

Last Tuesday, in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Patel stood before a judge, voice quivering, and said he was “ashamed” of his actions. The prosecution asked for a sentence of 84 months, emphasizing the scale of his fraud, the media attention the case received and the message it would send to others who might “steal millions and live like a king.” Patel’s attorney asked for probation, citing his client’s gambling addiction and subsequent recovery efforts as reasons for leniency.

Patel received a 78-month sentence.

In his first interview since he pleaded guilty last year, Patel said that after months of anticipation, dread and unease, he feels a sense of relief to finally face his punishment.

“I’m dealing with the consequences of something that happened a year and a half ago. I’ve been a completely different person since then through my recovery,” Patel said. “I’m dealing with something that’s happened in the past when I was a different person.”

Patel had roughly two dozen friends and family on hand at his sentencing, some of whom made statements vouching for his character. His older brother said he was the prototypical golden child who excelled at sports and school only to be derailed by alcohol abuse and gambling addiction. His high school teacher said he was a “model student.” His girlfriend insisted he was a good person who had taken responsibility for his actions and committed to a life of sobriety.

Government attorneys described him as a fabulist who conned his company and enjoyed the spoils. Court filings included pictures of Patel partying at swanky hotels, flying on private planes and flashing expensive bottles of champagne. In that filing, the prosecutor handling the case wrote that Patel continued to “enjoy the finer things” even after he was fired. Megha Parekh, the Jaguars chief legal counsel, issued a blistering assessment of Patel, stating that his actions invited an inordinate amount of scrutiny on the organization and diverted key resources and time from current employees: “He was our teammate and he betrayed us.”

Those depictions, while seemingly in contrast, coexist in Patel’s retelling, and he frequently toed the line between expressing remorse for his actions and ascribing those actions to a problem outside his control.

“I was battling with a secret addiction that nobody knew about,” Patel said. “Everyone thought I was doing great, dandy. You know, on Instagram they see you having fun, you’re with your friends and family, but there’s a mental demon inside.”

Patel grew up in a strict household where his parents, who immigrated from India, expected academic excellence from their two sons. He said he was impacted greatly by two losses earlier in his life: Patel’s father died of a heart attack when Patel was 13, and one of his best friends died in a car accident nine years later when he was in college. By that time, Patel said his drinking, drug use and gambling were all-consuming.

But Patel also had an abundance of love and support coupled with ambition and opportunity. He was, as the government attorney described in court, an example of the American Dream. Popular and well-liked among his classmates. Elected class president at the Paxon School for Advanced Studies in Jacksonville. Captain of his high school lacrosse team. And he had an entrepreneurial spirit, dabbling in e-commerce and side projects that suffused him with cash and freedom.

Like many people his age, Patel was drawn to gambling during the online poker boom of the early aughts and the ubiquity of fantasy sports. He said he first experienced the rush of gambling on a cruise trip to the Bahamas the summer before he left for college. The cruise featured a poker tournament and, though his mom forbade him to enter because he had previously squandered money on online poker by using her credit card, his stepfather slipped him a $100 bill.

A crowd formed around the poker table and he was in the middle of it all, winning the tournament and a $2,000 prize. He paid his mother back for a portion of the cruise and bought his then-girlfriend a necklace. He later posed for a picture with the money splayed out on a table and made that his Facebook profile avatar.

Patel enrolled at Florida State in 2010 but said the combination of partying and gambling led him to switch from his major of choice (engineering) to something more manageable (accounting). Poor grades prompted his transfer to Flagler College as he prioritized gambling over all else. He took a bus to an in-person poker tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, where he finished 15th out of about 1,500 entrants, winning almost $7,500. But he was able to return to FSU for an MBA. Out of college, he went to work for Deloitte, and while there he used his corporate credit card to fund his gambling habit. But he avoided trouble because his brother helped him pay it off.

In 2018, he landed his dream job with the Jaguars, a team he grew up supporting. By that point, he’d progressed from playing fantasy football to betting on baseball via offshore accounts to placing wagers on essentially anything he could. “You wake up in the middle of the night and you’re betting on Turkish women’s volleyball,” he said.

He’d ignore his mom’s calls, forget to brush his teeth, stay up late into the night, constantly refreshing his phone for scores and highlights while his girlfriend slept next to him. Once, in Las Vegas, he drove to the Nevada/Arizona border just so he could place a daily fantasy sports bet, which isn’t permitted in Nevada. When his bank account was low, he’d sell personal items, donate plasma, take out payday loans or rustle up work doing cell phone repairs. There were times he’d visit the ATM multiple times in a day, depositing and depleting.

“The worst part is there’s always a win around the corner,” Patel said. “And so that’s what you’re always chasing.”

In September 2019, Patel, then a mid-level employee with the Jaguars, was in the hole from gambling losses, his credit card maxed out. He was drunk, trying to think of a way to dig himself out of debt and feeling the “itch.” That’s when he allowed himself to consider using funds from the company VCC program he managed.

“I mean, the devil inside me is like let me just deposit $25,000 from the card. I’ll turn it into $50,000. I’ll put the $25,000 back,” Patel said.

Given the level of attrition and lack of oversight within the Jaguars’ depleted accounting and finance department, the prospect of getting caught seemed low. In corporate finance, there is a concept called the fraud triangle: Opportunity. Incentive. Rationalization. Patel had all three.

The hole deepened as Patel’s gambling losses mounted. And so he continued using funds obtained from the Jaguars VCC program to place astronomical bets via FanDuel and DraftKings in hopes that he’d win big and save himself. Patel said his VIP rep at FanDuel would add 10 percent to his account for every $600,000 he spent, in addition to entry fees that were refunded and travel perks he was comped. A spokesperson for FanDuel declined to comment as the company still considers the situation an “ongoing matter.”

In the early days of the scheme, Patel would see an unannounced meeting placed on his calendar and believe the team had figured out his subterfuge. As the years passed and his actions went undetected, that fear never abated, he said, but he just couldn’t stop.

He’s not sure what tipped off NFL security early in 2023. (Employees of NFL teams are forbidden from betting on games.) But he recounted some brazen moves he made in the months before his termination. Twice, he bet on the Jaguars – once while he was in Kansas City for a game against the Chiefs — an $18,000 six-way parlay involving five UFC fights and the Jags covering the spread. (The five fights went his way, he said, but the Jags didn’t cover.) Later, he said he bet “a few hundred thousand dollars” on a Jaguars-Titans game, another loss. He also tried to withdraw money from a wire to place bets through FanDuel, which triggered a notification from the anti-money laundering team at the site. (He said his account was suspended after he unsuccessfully answered questions about the source of his funds.)

“I was so far in the hole I was like ‘Maybe I can win a million really quick on this game and pay them back,’” he said. “I was desperate.”

In the immediate aftermath of getting fired by the Jaguars, Patel did not stop gambling. Instead, he continued scrambling to try to win and pay the team back. An absurd idea, he recognizes now, considering the sum he owed.

Patel was in rehab by the time the FBI got involved. His attorney referred him for alcohol and drug abuse, as well as gambling addiction. He cooperated with the government’s investigation and in December 2023 pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and an illegal monetary transaction.

In the 99 days he spent in rehab, Patel said he felt guilt and shame for the pain he caused his loved ones, friends and coworkers. But he also felt grateful. “I was so glad to be out of that torturous, endless cycle in my head,” he said.

Gambler’s Anonymous works similarly to Alcoholics Anonymous. You work the 12 steps. Identify the “character defects” that contribute to addiction. Patel still battles those, with perfectionism and ego surfacing more prevalently than he would like.

He bristled at the suggestion that he was a neophyte and historically bad gambler, as one report suggested. He was bothered by news accounts that only one person attended his plea hearing in his defense. (He told friends and family not to attend, he said.) And he pushes back on the government’s assertion that he was driven solely by greed.

He contends that he bought some luxury items to flip for profits to subsidize his gambling, while also acknowledging that he was frittering away money on a country club membership, spa services and more. Though the majority of the money he stole from the Jaguars ended up with FanDuel or DraftKings, the government contends that Patel transferred over $5 million to his PayPal and other financial accounts.

He admits he enjoyed the trappings that came with having access to millions of dollars but said the cost of certain trips and events were reimbursed by the online betting sites, an incentive for him to continue spending with them: “They just give you this illusion that you’re winning because they’re just making so much money off of you that they need to keep you happy and keep you gambling,” he said.

Patel said he still has urges to gamble — the most recent one came a few months ago when he got an email from the Hard Rock Hotel Casino group, commemorating the opening of its new sportsbook. Patel talked about it in the GA meeting he organized; the group now meets regularly in a local church.

“Not everyone will get addicted to gambling,” Patel said. “But everyone can get addicted.”

Patel will continue treatment while incarcerated. He is slated to begin his sentence within the next 90 days. His attorney requested he be placed at the federal facility closest to his family in Jacksonville. When he gets out, he’ll be put on a payment plan – $250 a month directed to the Jaguars. Both the prosecuting attorney and the judge acknowledged he is unlikely to ever pay back the entire sum he stole from the NFL franchise.

Said Patel: “I’ve just got to deal with these consequences and move on with my life and see how much I can use this to help a lot of other people.”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Don Juan Moore, Julio Aguilar, Perry Knotts, Don Juan Moore / Getty Images; courtesy of U.S. Attorney)

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