RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Peter Pocklington was once one of Canada’s most famous hockey team owners, but now he’s a convicted perjurer.
The former Edmonton Oilers owner pleaded guilty Thursday in a United States district court to lying during bankruptcy proceedings.
He is to be sentenced Aug. 9, which is also the 22nd anniversary of the day he shocked a hockey-crazed nation and broke the heart of his hometown by trading Oilers star player Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.
His plea is part of a deal with prosecutors that calls for probation and six months of home detention.
But prosecutor Sean Lokey stressed that the sentencing judge is not bound by the deal and that the recommended sentence is contingent on Pocklington fulfilling other tasks.
Those tasks include turning over property and working with U.S. tax authorities to file tax returns for 2006, 2007 and 2008 and paying any money owing. Pocklington, 68, has said he earned no income during those years.
“To the extent he complies with that and does everything he’s supposed to, he could be in a range where probation would be a probability,” said Lokey.
“He could also be in a range where it’s not, and prison time could be contemplated, so at this point there are some things that still need to happen.”
The maximum sentence he faces is five years in jail.
Pocklington was charged over a year ago with two counts of bankruptcy fraud after he filed a claim in 2008 stating he had assets of less than $3,000 and liabilities approaching US$20 million.
Pocklington admitted Thursday he declared bankruptcy without disclosing that he had sole control over two bank accounts and two storage facilities containing the assets and property of his wife Eva.
Under the deal, the old charges were dropped and Pocklington instead pleaded guilty to a new charge of perjury.
On the courthouse steps, Pocklington suggested the charges are a huge misunderstanding. He said his bankruptcy lawyer botched the job and caused him to mistakenly sign the document that eventually led to the perjury.
“I was told by my lawyer to sign it and that it was complete,” he said.
In a TV interview earlier in the week, he said he was a victim and that prosecutors came to him out of desperation to cut a plea deal because they had no case. He said he agreed to plead guilty because the U.S. grand jury system is inherently stacked against the accused.
Lokey declined to discuss the specifics of Pocklington’s accusation, but added: “Let me say this, Mr. Pocklington was just in federal court—under oath—and he agreed that the government could prove he had knowingly lied to the bankruptcy court.
“That’s a felony charge and he agreed to the factual basis of that, and he agreed we could prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The plea deal does not order Pocklington to pay restitution to other creditors who claim he owes them money. Those creditors include the Alberta government, which loaned Pocklington $2 million in 1988 to prop up his Gainers meat-packing company. A Canadian judge has already ruled Pocklington owes that amount plus interest for a total of $13 million.
Finance Department spokesman Bart Johnson said the guilty plea does nothing to change that and the province remains in line to be paid back.
“Our intention is to recover what is owed to us,” Johnson said.
Pocklington is not a U.S. citizen. Lokey said the plea could affect his immigration status but any deportation decision is up to U.S. immigration officials.
Pocklington’s court fight began March 11, 2009, when the FBI raided his home at Palm Desert, near tony Palm Springs, rousted him out of bed at 8 a.m. and hauled him away.
Investigators said they began looking at Pocklington’s finances because of the bankruptcy filing, particularly Pocklington’s claim that his total assets were US$50,000 and US$2,900 in cash in hand, including trophies, pictures, clothing, a watch and golf clubs.
They alleged that even though Pocklington claimed he was virtually penniless, he was giving away $80,000 worth of artwork and furniture out of two storage sheds, supposedly controlled by his wife, to settle affairs with some creditors. They also alleged he lied when he denied controlling two California bank accounts that he was using to write cheques to himself and creditors.
The sentencing will be a bitter pill for the man from London, Ont., who started out selling used cars and parlayed that into a financial empire that included real estate, hog slaughtering and pro hockey.
The NHL Oilers—led first by Gretzky and later Mark Messier—won five Stanley Cups in less than a decade. Pocklington gained fame as the bushy-bearded patriarch of the amazing “Boys on the Bus” and was the poster entrepreneur for the fruits of free enterprise.
“Peter Puck,” as he was know, dined with celebrities and golfed with U.S. presidents, but fame attracted danger. In 1982 he and his wife 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 south in 1986 when he brought in replacement workers to break the union at his Gainers plant. Things went from sour to toxic two years later when he sold Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The team won one more Stanley Cup, in 1990, then saw all its stars flee for bigger salaries.
Pocklington’s financial empire crumbled soon after and he moved to California in 2002, leaving behind angry creditors and millions of dollars in government bailouts for failed enterprises.
His legal troubles have continued in California. He has been taken to court by business partners alleging breach of contract. In July 2008, U.S. marshals raided his home to seize art work and artifacts to support one such judgment.
—By Dean Bennett in Edmonton