DNA evidence found on three counterfeit $500 poker chips passed at the Horseshoe Casino last year strongly suggests that Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Giardina actually made them, Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber said Saturday.
Giardina — who was U.S. Strategic Command’s deputy commander until his dismissal in the wake of the gambling scandal last fall — has maintained that he found the chips on the floor of a men’s room at the Council Bluffs casino the night of June 15-16, 2013. He later played them at the poker tables.
The DNA evidence shows that he is lying, Wilber said.
“He made the chips. He actually counterfeited those chips,” Wilber said.
The DNA findings are among the new revelations in a Naval Criminal Investigative Service report, released to The World-Herald and the Associated Press in response to separate Freedom of Information Act requests.
Though Giardina was reprimanded and fined in May for lying to investigators and passing the phony chips — and remains on the Navy’s payroll — the NCIS report offered the first evidence that he had actually made them himself.
“I never really bought his story about finding them in the john,” Wilber said. “There’s no question in my mind that it was not a true story.”
Giardina declined a Saturday email request for comment. But in two official statements written last spring — obtained by The World-Herald separately from the NCIS report — he continued to state that he had found the chips in the bathroom.
In one of the statements, an April 26 letter to Adm. William Gortney, who was to determine his punishment, Giardina also insisted that his love for poker “does not constitute a ‘gambling problem.’ ”
He pointed to his many years of honorable service to his country. Giardina is a 1979 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and in 35 years as a nuclear submarine officer rose to the highest levels of the military.
“I didn’t just wake up in the middle of June and ‘lose my mind’ and become a criminal as some have concluded,” Giardina wrote. “The notion that I acted in the manner I’ve been accused of makes no sense. It is completely out of character for me and would only have been done by a careless idiot who wanted to get caught.”
Giardina denied on Sunday that he played any role in making the casino chips, according to a report by the Associated Press.
The NCIS report filled in details on how the counterfeiter created the phony chips.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Lab, which examined the chips, found that the center markings of a real $500 chip from the Horseshoe Casino had been either photocopied or scanned onto an adhesive paper.
That paper was then attached to a $1 chip that had been doctored with purple paint to resemble a $500 chip.
The lab was unable to lift any fingerprints from the gambling chips. But last winter technicians linked a DNA sample from Giardina to DNA found on the back of the adhesive paper.
The report revealed more details about the extent of Giardina’s poker playing. The admiral — known to Horseshoe employees and regular card players as “Navy Tim” — logged 1,096 hours at the Horseshoe’s poker tables between his December 2011 arrival at StratCom and the counterfeiting incident in June 2013 — about 15 hours per week.
A casino supervisor told an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent that Giardina had begun visiting the poker room “a lot more frequently, four to five days a week” just before he was linked to the phony chips.
The supervisor also described Giardina as a “solid poker player” who “normally wins.”
Giardina continued to visit Horseshoe even after he was questioned about the poker chips, the report said. He was observed on a surveillance video there on July 18, 2013, and the next day was ordered to stay away from the casino for 90 days.
He was spotted there twice in October 2013 before the eviction expired, and within days of his dismissal from StratCom that month. Giardina was then banned for life from all Caesars Entertainment Corp. properties, including Horseshoe.
In a separate incident, he was evicted from the Penn Gaming Hollywood Casino in Kansas City, Kansas, on Oct. 12, 2013. The casino is not a Caesars property and the reasons for his eviction weren’t disclosed in the NCIS report, but Giardina left the casino without incident.
Giardina was accused of passing the counterfeit chips in Council Bluffs during a poker round early in the morning of June 16, 2013. After visiting the men’s room, he told a casino supervisor that he had found some property — he didn’t say what — on the restroom floor. He said he would turn it over if anyone claimed it.
No one did. Giardina later acknowledged using the three chips but said he didn’t know they were fake.
A cashier noticed one of the phony chips when another patron tried to cash it in, and two more were later discovered. Agents viewed videotapes and found that Giardina had passed all three chips.
Two days later, Iowa DCI Special Agent David Hendrix questioned Giardina at the casino. Giardina told Hendrix that he had purchased $2,000 worth of chips from a man in the restroom at a discount, explaining that casino patrons sometimes sell chips out of view of cameras in order to avoid taxes on their winnings from gambling. He said he lied out of fear and didn’t realize Hendrix was a law enforcement officer.
He told Hendrix that he wouldn’t risk his $200,000-a- year military job over such a small amount of money.
In mid-July, the Iowa investigators notified military authorities of their investigation.
The next month Giardina made a deal with Wilber through his attorney: He would admit in writing that he had lied about the restroom purchase of the chips, and Iowa would defer any legal action to the Navy.
Using counterfeit gambling chips is a felony in Iowa and passing them constitutes second-degree theft — also a felony.
“I was not forthright in my response about how I came into possession of the chips in question,” Giardina said in his Aug. 29, 2013, statement to Wilber. Giardina also repeated the story about finding the chips in the restroom.
In early September, then-StratCom commander Gen. C. Robert Kehler removed Giardina from access to classified information. He was fired a month later and reassigned to Navy headquarters in Washington, a move that reduced his rank one star, from vice admiral to rear admiral.
The NCIS report said Giardina had consistently declined to answer questions from either Iowa or Navy investigators. He also wouldn’t allow a search of his Offutt Air Force Base quarters. They did obtain a statement from a Navy service member who worked for Giardina and who said that the admiral had a computer and printer in his home, along with a painting studio.
In the May 2014 nonjudicial proceeding, Giardina was found guilty of two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, for lying to investigators and passing the counterfeit chips. His punishment was the reprimand and forfeiture of $4,000 in pay.
The Navy chose not to pursue a court martial because it was uncertain it could get a conviction with the evidence it had, officials told the Associated Press.
Wilber said he doesn’t expect to prosecute Giardina. Given the admiral’s public service, he believes a civilian court would likely have let him off with community service and a deferred judgment.
“That $4,000 fine is probably worse than he would have gotten in state court,” Wilber said. “If the Navy feels that’s appropriate punishment, then so be it.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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