Athletes tied to Iowa gambling sting seek damages in civil lawsuit against state and investigators

Attorneys for more than two dozen Iowa and Iowa State athletes who were ensnared in a state gambling sting filed a civil lawsuit Friday seeking unspecified monetary damages from the state and its public safety and criminal investigation agencies for violating the athletes’ rights and smearing their reputations.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Des Moines and names as plaintiffs 17 athletes from Iowa, eight from Iowa State and one from Ellsworth Community College. They request a jury trial.

Most of the athletes who faced criminal charges connected to the 2023 investigation agreed to plead guilty to underage gambling and pay a fine and in return had a count of identity theft dismissed.

But Iowa State players Isaiah Lee, Jirehl Brock and Enyi Uwazurike and wrestler Paniro Johnson did not accept plea deals and in March had all charges against them dropped because the Division of Criminal Investigation was found to have misused tracking software that detected open mobile betting apps on cell phones in ISU athletic facilities.

The civil suit, filed by Des Moines attorneys Van Plumb and Matthew Boles, alleges improper conduct by investigators violated the athletes’ fourth and 14th amendment rights and caused them pain, suffering, mental anguish, humiliation and damage to their personal reputations.

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the DCI, and Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

The lawsuit said the investigators, specifically, violated their constitutional rights to be free from a warrantless search and unreasonable seizure and that the investigators were not properly trained by the state, particularly in the appropriate use of Kibana tracking software produced by Canada-based GeoComply.

“The lives of these young men have been disrupted and altered in way still yet to be fully seen,” the athletes’ attorneys said in a statement. “Many of them have had their athletic careers ended, due to the State of Iowa’s unconstitutional use of GeoComply’s Kibana software. It is our hope that through the civil action we can help these young men put their lives back on track and gain a measure of justice for the violation of their rights.”

The athletes are asking for punitive damages on top of compensatory damages and attorney fees.

Among the defendants are Department of Public Safety commissioner Stephan Bayens, DCI director Paul Feddersen, DCI assistant director David Jobes, DCI special agent for sports wagering Troy Nelson and special agent Brian Sanger.

Sanger’s initial investigation involved athletes at Iowa and later was expanded to Iowa State. Details weren’t available for the Ellsworth CC athlete’s involvement; he is not listed in electronic court records.

The DPS had issued a statement on Jan. 31 that said it believed its investigation would stand up to legal scrutiny. Defense attorneys contended that was disingenuous because GeoComply, which produces the tracking software, days earlier had terminated DCI’s access to the tool after an investigator had violated the user agreement.

The software that discovered the open betting apps and ultimately identified the athletes was used in spite of there never having been a complaint about illegal sports wagering or match fixing.

It is against the rules for athletes to wager on any sport sponsored by the NCAA. Most of the athletes involved were found to have registered their mobile wagering accounts under a different name to avoid detection, usually that of a relative.

The investigation resulted in lost NCAA eligibility as well as criminal charges.

In the criminal cases involving ISU athletes, Plumb and Boles argued Sanger violated the DCI’s limited-use agreement with a geofencing tracking firm when he used its software to locate places inside ISU athletic facilities where athletes were making wagers on mobile betting platforms. The agent later obtained account information from the platforms to identify the athletes and third parties whose credit cards were used.

The attorneys contended use of the tracking software was unconstitutional because no warrant had been issued, and it noted that the software firm, GeoComply, cut off DCI’s access to the tool last month because the user agreement was violated.

Sanger had said in a deposition that he opened the investigation because of his concerns about potential match fixing, though he had no tip or specific information that such activity was taking place among ISU athletes.

The attorneys said in court filings that the athletes were told by investigators that the online wagering companies were under investigation, not them. The athletes said they were not read their Miranda rights, which can protect a suspect from self-incrimination, so any admissions or statements should be thrown out.


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