Broker gets year-and-a-half in prison for White Sox ticket scam

The scam came to light in October 2019 with an FBI affidavit about suspicious ticket sales, especially surrounding the August 2018 debut of pitcher Michael Kopech. Months later, prosecutors accused Bruce Lee of making $868,369 by selling 34,876 fraudulently obtained tickets during the 2016 through 2019 baseball seasons.

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Bruce Lee and his lawyer walk out of the Dirksen Federal Building after a hearing on Feb. 10, 2022. Lee faced sentencing after being found guilty of several counts of wire fraud based on 34,876 fraudulently obtained White Sox tickets during the 2016 through 2019 baseball seasons.

Bruce Lee and his lawyer walk out of the Dirksen Federal Building after a hearing on Feb. 10, 2022. Lee faced sentencing after being found guilty of several counts of wire fraud based on 34,876 fraudulently obtained White Sox tickets during the 2016 through 2019 baseball seasons.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a prolific ticket broker convicted of a lucrative yearslong scam of the Chicago White Sox to a year-and-a-half in prison.

A January 2020 indictment charged ticket broker Bruce Lee with wire fraud and money laundering, and a jury found Lee guilty last fall of several counts of wire fraud.

His trial involved the betrayal of the Sox by a decadeslong employee, a secret recording at a pizza place near Sox park, and a brazen plan to take advantage of the South Siders’ complimentary and discount ticket programs.

Ahead of his sentencing hearing, Lee’s lawyers made the eye-catching argument that the Sox benefited from Lee’s scheme because it brought fans to the ballpark to spend money. They even insisted that “White Sox fans are the baseball fans that drink the most alcohol at a game.”

Meanwhile, the feds say $1.1 million of Lee’s assets inexplicably disappeared sometime after December 2019, a month before his indictment. Defense attorney Nishay Sanan said much of it went to legal fees and other expenses because Lee was out of work after the pandemic hit.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Lee told the judge his work as a ticket broker helped him rise up out of a difficult childhood. “From sporting events and concerts and theater, I found a good, honest profession that I excelled at,” he said. And he said he saw the White Sox ticket sales as part of that.

“I was fooling myself, and I should have known better,” Lee said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider repeatedly told jurors at trial “the White Sox got nothing” out of the arrangement between Lee and the longtime Sox ticket seller. But Sanan said any crime against the Sox took place inside the ticket booth with the Sox employee. He said Lee legitimately thought he’d paid for the thousands of tickets he later sold on StubHub.

The scam first came to light in October 2019 with an FBI affidavit about the suspicious ticket sales, especially surrounding the August 2018 debut of pitcher Michael Kopech. In January 2020, prosecutors accused Lee of making $868,369 by selling 34,876 fraudulently obtained tickets during the 2016 through 2019 baseball seasons.

The tickets had a market value of between $1 million and $1.2 million, authorities said.However, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ordered Lee to pay $455,229 in forfeiture. He set restitution in the case at only $74,650, because the at-issue tickets were discounted and that was “the only number that is supported by evidence.”

The Sox’s data analytics team flagged Lee as a StubHub seller who had “sold more White Sox tickets than anyone else by a substantial margin,” and the team approached the FBI in October 2018. The analytics team also thought Lee might have had inside help.

A separate affidavit described an interview with a Sox employee who told the feds he and Lee had realized in 2017 that a “bad weather” ticket program for fans had “opened the door” for tickets to be printed “without the White Sox knowledge or consent” using the computer code “Rain17.”

“I printed more Sox tickets free of charge with the Rain17 code for Bruce Lee than any other code,” the employee told the FBI.

Two former ticket sellers for the Sox, James Costello and William O’Neil, later admitted their roles in the scheme. They acknowledged they generated thousands of complimentary and discount tickets — without required vouchers — and gave them to Lee in exchange for cash.

Costello used other employees’ ID codes to avoid detection, and he eventually recruited O’Neil to help with the scheme. Costello pleaded guilty to wire fraud and O’Neil pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. They are set to be sentenced Friday.

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