Peter Pocklington – Canada’s formerly famous celebrity businessman and patriarch of hockey’s dynastic Edmonton Oilers – was ordered held behind bars in Riverside, Calif, Wednesday after being arrested by the FBI on charges of bankruptcy fraud.
The 67-year-old, appeared in court in jeans and handcuffs, where he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
He returns to court Friday in this community south of Los Angeles, at which time prosecutors plan to argue he stay behind bars until his May 5 trial.
“He is a foreign national and certainly would pose a flight risk,” Thom Mrozek of the United States Attorney’s office in Los Angeles said in an interview.
“Also as we continue to investigate we have reasons to believe he may have assets – nothing we can prove right now – but he may have assets offshore.
“So we want to make sure that he remains in the United States to make his court appearances.”
Pocklington does not have U.S. citizenship.
Pocklington was arrested without incident by the FBI on Wednesday morning at his condo in Palm Desert, just outside the tony resort of Palm Springs, and charged with two counts of bankruptcy fraud.
If convicted he faces up to 10 years in federal prison.
In the indictment, investigators said the case began seven months ago, on Aug. 11, 2008, when Pocklington filed for bankruptcy in California, claiming debts of almost $US20 million.
Anyone who files for such relief must detail all financial affairs so that the holdings can be liquidated, the creditors satisfied as best as possible and the debtor discharged from debts.
Pocklington claimed maximum assets of US$50,000 and US$2,900 in cash in hand, including trophies, pictures, clothing, a watch and golf clubs.
“That huge disparity in numbers raised some red flags in the bankruptcy court system and that’s what led to our investigation,” said Mrozek.
The U.S. Attorney’s office alleges Pocklington lied under oath in bankruptcy proceedings when he denied recently paying off some creditors.
In unsealed search warrant affidavits, an FBI agent said she interviewed Edmonton businessman Ed Moroz, who had been trying to collect a US$200,000 judgment against Pocklington over a failed Internet venture.
The agent said Moroz told her that just weeks before Pocklington filed for bankruptcy protection, he contacted Moroz and gave him art work, a rug and a desk – all worth $US 80,000.
“Pocklington advised Moroz that he was planning to file a bankruptcy and this was some way of giving Moroz his money back,” said the affidavit.
Court documents also allege Pocklington lied when he denied under oath controlling two accounts at the Palm Desert National Bank, which he allegedly then used to write cheques to himself, to his wife and to creditors.
Investigators believe Pocklington has been associated with off-shore companies registered in the Bahamas for the last eight years.
It also alleges Pocklington lied when he denied under oath having been in a management position in four companies in the years prior to filing for bankruptcy protection.
It’s the latest twist in what has been a rocky and colourful road for the entrepreneur who grew up in London, Ont., but made his fortune in Alberta parlaying used car sales into a juggernaut of financial services and real estate.
Pocklington became famous when he bought the Oilers and signed budding superstar Wayne Gretzky in 1978. The NHL team won five Stanley Cups under him in the 1980s and Pocklington was hailed as a civic hero. Known affectionately as Peter Puck, he cavorted with celebrities and golfed with U.S. presidents, though fame also had its dark side. In 1982 he and wife Eva were taken hostage at their Edmonton mansion by a man in a failed kidnap scheme.
In 1983, he ran for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives, losing to Brian Mulroney but not before pushing for a flat tax to aid the wealthy.
His love affair with Edmonton went sour in 1986 when he brought in replacement workers to break the union at his Gainers meat-packing plant. Things became downright toxic two years later when he sold Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.
His financial empire crumbled soon after and he moved to California in 2002, leaving in his wake angry creditors and millions of dollars in government bailouts for failed enterprises.
In California he has recently been taken to court by business partners for breach of contract. Last July, U.S. marshals raided Pocklington’s home to seize art work and artifacts to support one such judgment.