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Peter Pocklington to go before California bail judge Friday in fraud case

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Peter Pocklington's California tax lawyer says the former owner of the Edmonton Oilers is the innocent victim of a vengeful witch hunt by a legal system on a crusade against corporate crime.

"I can't believe what's been done to him - it's just crazy," said Michael Lusby in an interview Thursday from his office in Oceanside, Calif. "The political climate in this country is such that you can indict a ham sandwich.

"There are some people who think (Pocklington's) got millions of dollars stashed away somewhere. I don't know if he does or doesn't, but I've seen no evidence of it. But for them to come in like Eliot Ness looking for Al Capone is ridiculous."

Pocklington, 67, is to go before a judge Friday afternoon in United States District Court in Riverside, south of Los Angeles, to seek bail pending his May 5 trial on two charges of bankruptcy fraud.

He has been in custody since Wednesday, when FBI agents arrested him at his condo in nearby Palm Desert. He was hauled into court in shackles and pleaded not guilty to both counts.

U.S. assistant attorney Sean Lokey said they will argue Pocklington should be held in custody pending trial because he is a flight risk, but he added they may agree to release on a US$1-million bond.

"The $1 million did come up. It was something discussed in open court between myself and the defence attorney as something we could potentially be OK with," said Lokey.

Pocklington has Canadian citizenship but is not also a U.S. citizen.

Lusby says Pocklington's family is scrambling to raise the bond money while Pocklington sits somewhere in the San Bernardino County jail system.

They'll be successful, he predicted: "He'll be out Friday.

"(Authorities) took his passport. He's not going anywhere. He owns property here, he's got his family here, he's got relatives here. I feel for the man."

If convicted, he would face a maximum 10-year sentence in federal prison.

Lusby said Pocklington has yet to retain a criminal defence lawyer.

It was Lusby who gave the legal advice to Pocklington when he filed for bankruptcy in California last August.

Pocklington claimed debts of almost US$20 million against cash-in-hand assets of US$2,900, including trophies, pictures, clothing, a watch and golf clubs.

Investigators said the wide disparity between those two figures prompted the investigation. But Lusby said disputes over such filings is usually settled as a civil matter, not a criminal one.

"Some of the things that (Pocklington) proposed in his bankruptcy were a little unorthodox, but after a long discussion and review, I believe they're merited under the current law of the United States and there's nothing I've seen in that indictment that is criminal."

Lusby said he warned Pocklington he'd be challenged. "He said: 'It is what it is. I know I'm right.' He's positive everything we've put down there is correct."

The U.S. Attorney's office alleges Pocklington lied under oath in bankruptcy proceedings when he knowingly failed to report that he had recently handed over art work, a rug and a desk - worth a combined US$80,000 - from a storage locker to a creditor to help settle a debt.

Lusby, however, said Pocklington did not have to declare those items because they were deeded to his wife Eva more than a decade ago and were in her name.

"They're using this to get a search (warrant) and try to find something else," he said.

Prosecutors also allege Pocklington lied when he denied controlling two accounts at the Palm Desert National Bank, which he allegedly used to write cheques to himself, to his wife and to creditors.

"He just merely had banking privileges on behalf of an investment group. He doesn't own a single bit of that asset," said Lusby.

"Is that an asset you have to (report)? Obviously they seem to think it is. That is the kind of thing that we can disagree about, but it's not the kind of thing you bring criminal charges on."

Lokey declined to discuss the specifics of the charges or other information yet to be heard in open court.

Pocklington, from London, Ont., moved to California in 2002, but made millions in Alberta in financial services and real estate.

It was his hockey team that made him famous. He bought the Edmonton Oilers in the mid-1970s and led them from the World Hockey Association into the NHL. He signed budding superstar Wayne Gretzky in 1978, who led the team to four of the team's five Stanley Cup wins over the next 12 years.

But the 1980s also brought hard times to his business empire.

In 1983, his Fidelity Trust insurance company was cited for bad business loans and then collapsed, leaving the federal government to spend $359 million to bail out investors.

In 1986, he brought in strikebreakers in a labour dispute at his Gainers meat-packing plant, which led to a public backlash which eventually destroyed the company's bottom line.

In 1988, he sold Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and, in the years to come, he further enraged local hockey fans by threatening to move the Oilers if he didn't get a better revenue deal on the team's home rink.

By 1998, two more of Pocklington's financial firms went bust. Bankruptcy proceedings followed a year later. The Alberta government is still trying to recoup $12 million from Pocklington stemming from unpaid loans to Gainers.

Pocklington's legal woes continued in California. He has recently been taken to court by business partners for breach of contract. Last summer, U.S. marshals raided his home to seize art work and artifacts to support one such judgment.

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