By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007
From an early age, H. David Meyers had a talent for coaxing sweet, swirling notes from the oboe. At 15, he was performing at Carnegie Hall. Eventually he had a dozen solo appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra. Last year, at 61, he collaborated with musicians of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, one of Russia's most prestigious orchestras, as the soloist on a recording of a Beethoven concerto whose score had been lost for almost 200 years.
Today, however, Meyers will face the music in a courtroom in Greenbelt. Having pleaded guilty in November to three counts of operating an illegal gambling business and money laundering, he awaits sentencing by a federal judge. Meyers could receive up to 20 years in prison. Even one year away, he says, would surely spell the end of his music career.
Those who knew Meyers for his musical achievements likely had no idea of his other pursuits. Between early 2001 and 2004, according to his plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Meyers operated a business called Sports International 2000 that solicited and helped place thousands of bets on college and pro football and basketball games from gamblers in Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and elsewhere.
Working with his brother-in-law, Robert Levine, and Levine's son Steven, Meyers gave prospective bettors individual passwords and code numbers, plus access to a toll-free telephone line that connected them to a wire-transfer room in the Caribbean nation of Dominica. Bettors placed wagers through the offshore wire room or through a Web site that apparently operated out of Dominica as well.
Official documents in the case spell out the businesslike operation of Meyers's organization. Losing bettors paid up, and winners were paid off, on Thursdays and Fridays at a series of regular locations, including Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Timpano's Italian restaurant in Rockville, and at a liquor store on Seven Locks Road in Potomac, near where Meyers formerly lived.
The Levines have also pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing; Meyers's brother, Harold, was indicted last year as well.
The precise extent of the operation is not detailed in Meyers's plea agreement, but prosecutors clearly believe it was substantial. The agreement, for example, notes that Sports International set up toll-free numbers to provide gamblers with updated betting lines on games. During one six-month period, these phone numbers received more than 50,000 calls, according to the agreement. Meyers, it notes, personally collected $10,010 from one losing bettor in Olney on April 16, 2004.
The money-laundering count stems from Meyers's efforts to transfer some of the gambling proceeds into his former girlfriend's bank account, in an effort to disguise their source.
The case is unusual, even bizarre, in several respects, not least of which is Meyers's elite status as a classical musician.
Meyers not only had no prior criminal record when he was arrested and handcuffed at his Potomac home last year, but he also had a long history of good works. For more than two decades, he organized charitable concerts at Lincoln Center in New York and at the Kennedy Center, benefiting such organizations as Children's Hospital in the District.
Meyers also had a long business career. After graduating from George Washington University law school in 1971, he started a business in Rockville called Timesaver Inc., which helped low-income people establish credit lines with banks. The company, which advertised nationwide with Mickey Mantle as its spokesman before going bankrupt in 1984, required customers to deposit a fixed sum with a bank, which then issued a card permitting the depositor to make purchases. "I am the inventor of the debit card," declared Meyer, who sat for a lengthy interview on Saturday. "It's not open to dispute. I invented it."
What's more, Meyers is the rare confessed felon with a New York public relations firm promoting his story. The company, Ken Sunshine Consultants, which represents the record company that issued Meyers's Beethoven CD, contacted The Post on Meyers's behalf.
Meyers is a tall, talkative man whom friends fondly call "H" ("I don't even know my first name anymore," he says. "It's just 'H,' " for Herbert). He met a reporter at a Starbucks in Potomac Village and proceeded to talk -- and occasionally play his oboe -- while sitting in a courtyard adjacent to the coffee shop.
"It's a total misunderstanding more than anything," he says. "Everything I've been charged with, I have a legitimate defense." For example, because it takes weeks for a check to clear in Dominica, he says, he would cash checks given to him by Internet gamblers and then would forward this money to the operators of the offshore betting site. "I didn't think it was illegal to do that," he says. "Las Vegas casinos send checks into Maryland [to pay off winners] all the time. Banks transfer money all the time. Why can't I?"
He said Sports International was a way to supplement his musical career, which provided only intermittent compensation. The only reason he agreed to plead guilty to three of the original seven counts brought by a grand jury last year, he added, was to spare two friends and another relative, whom he won't identify, from prosecution.
Soon, Meyers was joined by his attorney, Barry Helfand, who called Meyers "a bon vivant" who has "classical music in his heart and soul" and noted his charitable activities. He also called his client "a Damon Runyon character," but reconsidered the description when he was reminded that Runyon most famously wrote about ne'er-do-wells and gamblers who were the role models for "Guys and Dolls."
While Helfand talked, Meyers serenaded him with "Happy Birthday" and later with the piping opening bars of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik."
Eventually, Meyers got around to saying that he regrets his actions and is willing to take responsibility for them. But he repeatedly insisted that he was unaware that he was violating any laws.
"I find this whole situation extremely outrageous," he said at one point.
Moreover, he suggested the government is hypocritical about Internet gambling. He pulled from his briefcase several copies of a monthly magazine published by Amtrak, a government-supported institution, and flipped to ads for offshore gambling sites. "This is the U.S. government, encouraging Americans to gamble over the Internet," he said.
Meyers argues that he's already paid a big price for his actions. To recoup profits that prosecutors claim he reaped from illegal gambling, Meyers agreed to sell his house and forfeit the profit to the government. Prosecutors are seeking $321,365 from the sale, but Meyers has disputed this figure, and is still negotiating a settlement. What's more, Helfand's legal fees are "well into six figures," Meyers said.
"I'm broke," he says. "Broker than broke. The government thinks I've stashed all this money in offshore accounts, but it's just not true." Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is handling Meyers's prosecution, declined to comment.
As for the prospect of doing a long stretch in prison, Meyers seems oddly unmoved. The only thing he says he will really miss is playing the oboe, which he practices two to three hours a day.
"If I go to jail," says Meyers, who now lives in Leesburg, "my playing days are over. Itzhak Perlman once said: 'If I miss one day of practice, I know the difference. If I miss two days, my fellow musicians know. Three days, and the entire world knows.' "
After two hours of conversation, he insisted that a reporter listen to his Beethoven CD, which was recorded in St. Petersburg last fall. (Meyers had to get the court's permission to travel abroad for the performance.) He popped the recording into the console of his Cadillac Escalade and was quickly engrossed by the interplay of the strings, bassoon and oboe.
"Wait!" he commanded his listener. "Wait for this! A high F! Here it comes . . ." And as the notes climbed and reached, dancing higher and higher until they concluded with one last pure sound, Meyers smiled, and seemed very, very pleased.