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Scam that cost White Sox $1M took place ‘behind the booth,’ defense attorney tells jury

The trial of Bruce Lee is playing out just as the Sox are about to enter the playoffs. The feds say Lee made $868,369 by selling 34,876 fraudulently obtained tickets during the 2016 through 2019 seasons.

Baseball fans arrive for the first game of a baseball double header between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals Friday, May 14, 2021, at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.
Baseball fans arrive for the first game of a baseball double header between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals Friday, May 14, 2021, at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.
AP

A ticket broker accused of scamming the Chicago White Sox out of $1 million believed he legitimately paid for thousands of tickets he later sold on StubHub, and any crime against the South Siders took place “behind the booth,” his defense attorney said Friday.

Nishay Sanan put most of the responsibility for that scheme on James Costello, one of two ex-Sox employees who have admitted providing thousands of complimentary and discount tickets — without required vouchers — to Sanan’s client, Bruce Lee, for cash.

But the feds say Lee then made $868,369 by selling 34,876 fraudulently obtained tickets during the 2016 through 2019 baseball seasons, later using some of that money to invest in real estate and at a car dealership. A January 2020 indictment charged Lee with wire fraud and money laundering, and a jury heard opening statements in Lee’s trial Friday.

Laying out the scheme to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider repeatedly told the jury, “the White Sox got nothing” out of the arrangement that allegedly began between Lee and Costello.

Meanwhile, the prosecutor said Lee told the FBI he offered Costello a deal, “and he took it.”

The case mostly revolves around complimentary voucher tickets, which go to friends and family of players, youth groups, commercial sponsors and others — and are not meant for sale, court records show.

The trial is playing out before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly just as the Sox are about to enter the playoffs. The tickets at issue had a market value of between $1 million and $1.2 million, authorities said.

Sanan said Lee initially brought legitimate vouchers for the tickets to Costello, who later told him he no longer needed them. Sanan also told jurors Lee believed he was paying the White Sox for tickets, but he also included a “tip” demanded by Costello.

“Jim Costello decided to keep the cash on his own,” Sanan said. “Without telling Bruce Lee. Whatever money Bruce Lee thought he was paying for those tickets, Costello put in his pocket.”

Lee will face evidence that includes testimony from Costello, who took the stand late Friday, and likely the other former Sox employee, William O’Neil. Both agreed to cooperate with prosecutors when they admitted to their role in the scam. Costello pleaded guilty to wire fraud, and O’Neil pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

The feds also say they have a recording of a March 2019 conversation between Lee and Costello at a pizza restaurant near Sox park. In court filings, they allege Lee told Costello the source of the tickets could not be traced.

“I just sold them on StubHub, so nobody could see, like, how much I paid for the tickets,” Lee allegedly said.

Prosecutors also claim Lee said he was prepared to lie to help cover up the ticket scheme.

But Sanan told jurors to “pay very close attention to who is saying what” during that conversation. The defense attorney acknowledged Lee paid Costello a “tip.”

However, he said, “at no time does Bruce Lee admit to stealing from the White Sox.”