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Tierney denies in-laws’ claims

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 4, 2012
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SALEM — Representative John Tierney, in one of the most important news conferences of his career, told reporters Tuesday that he believed his brothers-in-law were running a legitimate online gambling business until he later learned from authorities that they were breaking the law.

His brothers-in-law, Robert and Daniel Eremian, said last week that Tierney knew everything about their gambling activities in Antigua. But on Tuesday, Tierney responded by saying the pair maligned him because the men were “bitter and angry” that he did not use his position as a congressman to “make this go away for them.”

“The fact is that Robert and Daniel Eremian are continuing their pattern of putting their family through turmoil,” he said.

The Salem Democrat has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing, but his wife, Patrice, pleaded guilty in October 2010 to “willful blindness” of the gambling operation and tax fraud.

On Tuesday, Tierney stood for more than 40 minutes in a hotel conference room, guarded by security officers and political operatives to prevent political opponents from filming or disrupting his comments.

As many in his district headed off for the Fourth of July, Tierney repeatedly maneuvered around questions about whether he was willfully blind to his wife’s activities or the illegal ­activities of his brothers-in-law, before finally saying, “No.”

Tierney, who twice visited the house in Antigua where the operation continues to be based, said there were no obvious signs Robert Eremian was running a gambling operation.

“It seems to be a modest house,” Tierney said. “It wasn’t a casino with lights on or anything like that.”

Tierney repeatedly said he thought Robert Eremian’s gambling business was legal based on a 2002 court agreement that allowed him to work as a computer consultant to a betting enterprise in Antigua after ­Robert Eremian pleaded guilty in a 1998 gambling case.

The congressman’s explanation will loom large in his ­reelection campaign this year.

Republicans have targeted Tierney’s seat as a rare opportunity to pick up a seat in Massachusetts, which has no Republicans in the US House. Tierney’s opponent, Richard R. Tisei of Wakefield, is a former state senator who ran for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Democrats, who spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity, said there is increasing worry in their own party about Tierney’s ability to survive the family legal crisis.

“People are very concerned,” said one Democratic consultant. “They have been for months, and nothing that’s unfolded in the last weeks has surprised anybody.”

They said Tierney was not helped in the redistricting process when efforts to move ­Lawrence, a Democratic stronghold, from Representative Niki Tsongas’ district to Tierney’s were rebuffed.

“If he’d had Lawrence, he’d have been almost invincible,” said one senior Democrat.

His wife’s legal troubles have now lasted nearly two years, and there is a growing fear that unlimited money from super PAC political committees could do considerably more damage to Tierney’s reputation in the fall, as groups that oppose him seek to highlight the scandal.

Another Democratic consultant said there is already discussion about 2014, and who might run against Tisei if he ­defeats Tierney in November.

Mayor Kimberley Driscoll of Salem, who is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate, could not be reached Tuesday. In the past, she has been loath to consider a race against an incumbent congressman from her hometown.

Democrats say they still believe Tierney can defeat Tisei, but that the campaign needs to stop playing defense and begin talking about other issues.

“It’s not too late by any means,” said one consultant.

Tierney is unopposed on the Sept. 6 Democratic primary ballot. He could only be ­replaced in the general election if an opponent forges a successful sticker campaign or if he declines the party’s nomination in September, leaving it to local Democratic Party officials to pick an alternate.

But Tierney said Tuesday that he never entertained leaving the race, despite the headlines about his family. He said that his opponents are trying to take advantage of his family’s turmoil for personal gain.

“This is his only trick,” ­Tierney said of Tisei.

Asked Tuesday whether he felt he owed voters an apology, the eight-term congressman said he regretted the situation, but added, “It has not distracted me from my work.”

“I regret having brothers-in- law,” he said. “But you don’t get to choose those things in life.”

Robert Eremian is still living in the Caribbean island nation. He is a fugitive from justice ­after being indicted in 2010 on 442 counts of racketeering, illegal gambling, and money laundering. The United States does not have an extradition agreement with Antigua.

Daniel Eremian started serving a three-year prison sentence last week after being convicted this spring on federal charges related to the gambling ring.

Patrice Tierney was called as a witness in that case, but she invoked spousal privilege to avoid answering questions about her husband.

Tierney said Tuesday he ­believes his wife was acting on the instruction of her lawyer, former US Attorney Donald Stern. “I suspect that her attorney told her to take advantage of a privilege that’s available to everybody else,” said Tierney.

He said he was not involved in that decision.

“My wife’s disposition of her case, either way, wasn’t going to be very helpful to my life,” said Tierney.

Prosecutors alleged that ­Patrice Tierney received more than $7 million from her brother Robert Eremian. Prosecutors said she managed a Massachusetts bank account for him that received illegal gambling profits, and that she provided information to his tax preparer that mischaracterized his profits as commissions.

The congressman said his wife thought she was helping her brother and their troubled family by paying bills and handling tax payments and that any payments to her by Robert Eremian were gifts of gratitude for her efforts. He labeled a $223,000 figure used by prosecutors as “very much inflated.”

But on Tuesday Tisei reiterated questions about Patrice Tierney’s use of spousal privilege when she testified.

“It’s taken two years to have a press conference to answer questions,” Tisei said. “The time to really answer questions when it mattered was when his wife went on the stand.”

After his sentencing last week, Daniel Eremian told ­reporters that John Tierney “knew everything” about the gambling operation, is a “liar,” and forced Patrice Tierney into a plea bargain to spare himself political fallout when he sought reelection in November 2010.

A day later, Robert Eremian told the Globe, during a phone interview, that Daniel Eremian “told the truth.”

“I will verify everything that my brother said, which will show John Tierney is lying,” Robert Eremian said Friday.

“He threw my sister under the bus for his political career,” Eremian added. “He made her plead guilty because he was afraid of an Ethics Committee investigation, and he knew he couldn’t lie in front of the committee.”

Neither brother specified whether they were alleging Tierney knew of illegal activity, or just Robert Eremian’s offshore betting operation. Online betting is legal in Antigua, but US authorities have targeted the movement of the gambling money, as well as the collection of gambling debts.

Noah Bierman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman. Glen Johnson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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