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Family ties prove thorny for Tierney

Wife’s kin face legal woes again

Congressman John F. Tierney, shown speaking to reporters last year, has said that he did not monitor his wife’s interactions with her family “day to day.’’ Congressman John F. Tierney, shown speaking to reporters last year, has said that he did not monitor his wife’s interactions with her family “day to day.’’ (Photos by Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / November 28, 2011
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In the spring of 1978, federal agents were keeping close watch on an oceanfront estate near Bar Harbor, Maine, suspicious of its rental to a suspected drug smuggler. After confiscating nine tons of marijuana on a sailboat offshore, agents descended on the property. Among those arrested were two brothers from Massachusetts: Daniel Eremian, 28, and Robert Eremian, 25, who said he was at the estate for a tennis vacation.

Now, 33 years later, the brothers are again facing federal charges. Daniel Eremian is on trial for his alleged role in an illegal Antigua-based gambling venture, Sports Offshore, which raked in millions of dollars between 1998 and 2006. Robert is a fugitive on related racketeering charges. Closing arguments are expected this week.

The saga of the Boxford-bred brothers might have attracted little notice outside the courtroom if not for the fact that their sister is Patrice Tierney, wife of US Representative John F. Tierney, the eight-term Democratic congressman from Salem.

Last week Patrice Tierney testified against Daniel Eremian, and a year ago pleaded guilty to helping Robert Eremian file false tax returns, saying that she believed for years that he was a software consultant for a legal business.

Critics have assailed her claim of ignorance and questioned what her husband knew of her family’s pursuits, but one thing seems clear: Since the mid-1990s, when her brother Robert moved his gambling business to Antigua and watched it prosper, and her husband launched his Washington political career, their divergent paths were destined for collision.

“Frankly, when you look at some of the family history, it’s remarkable the life she’s lived,’’ Patrice Tierney’s lawyer, Donald K. Stern, told a judge at her sentencing earlier this year. “It is remarkable that she has lived the law-abiding - and certainly until this day, until she pled guilty - life that she’s had.’’

Robert and Daniel Eremian started early down a rocky path. Their father, Robert G. Eremian, owned a bowling alley and later a bar; he drank heavily, several people with knowledge of the family said, and the home environment was chaotic. A third brother committed suicide, Patrice Tierney’s lawyer said.

By the time they were in their 30s, Robert and Daniel Eremian had both pleaded guilty to federal drug charges; Robert was sentenced to four years in prison in the Maine case, while Daniel received three years of probation.

It was an era when drug smugglers were drawn to the sparsely populated Down East coastline, and offshore busts were not uncommon. The crew at the Mount Desert Island estate, where the Eremians and half a dozen others were arrested in 1978, were not unsophisticated. According to court documents, they brought scales, radio equipment, and nautical charts, and installed a gangway at the estate’s deep-water dock to prepare for the arrival of the Southern Belle, a yacht carrying bales of marijuana worth more than $5 million in street value.

“It was sort of a maritime cowboy time period,’’ said Michael Cunniff, a former special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who headed the investigation.

Their convictions in Maine did not slow the Eremians down for long, federal prosecutors allege. Following in his father’s footsteps, Daniel Eremian ran a bar in downtown Peabody, Brodie’s Pub, in the 1980s. Before he lost it in his 1993 divorce, a trial brief alleges, he “solicited customers from the bar for Robert’s gambling business.’’

One former Brodie’s regular, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the bar, known for its steak tips, friendly bartenders, and neighborhood vibe, was also known to attract the betting crowd.

But another person - Patrice Tierney’s former husband, J. Alan Chew - disputes prosecutors’ claims.

“Danny loved having that bar, and I find it hard to believe he would have done anything to risk it,’’ said Chew, who was married to Patrice for 25 years before their divorce in 1995, and is now a lawyer in Hanalei, Hawaii. “I would have known.’’

In the 1990s, prosecutors say, Robert Eremian ran the gambling business from his Lynnfield home, where he had an office above the garage. He was investigated for federal tax evasion in 1997, and charged with failing to pay income tax of $58,000 on his gross income of $225,000; he later pleaded guilty, paid restitution, and received probation. Around that time, with the government’s permission to relocate for what he described as a consulting job, Eremian moved the gambling operation to St. John’s, Antigua.

The business, known as Sports Offshore, added toll-free phone lines and a website, allowing customers easier access. It did not, however, morph into an online-only business; prosecutors say Eremian maintained a network of some 50 collection agents in the United States, a group that allegedly included his father, before his death in 1998; his brother Daniel; and Todd Lyons, a codefendant in Daniel’s trial.

They collected cash from customers - Lyons himself collected $22 million between 1998 and 2006, court papers allege - and shipped it to Antigua via FedEx packages. The collectors found they could stuff $6,000 into a FedEx box before it started to bulge, so “six packs,’’ as they called them, became their standard shipment, prosecutors say. Customers could also pay by check or wire transfer; Robert Eremian allegedly set up several business fronts, including one known as “Benevolence Funding,’’ to receive their payments.

“It feels great,’’ Robert Eremian told a New York Times reporter who interviewed him in 1998, for a story about offshore sports books. “I don’t have to worry about the police coming and breaking the door down.’’

As his business was thriving, though, his faraway family was struggling. His wife was distracted by serious personal problems, and their four children were often left in the care of a nanny, friends said, a view echoed by Patrice Tierney’s lawyer in court. Asked by Robert Eremian to help, Patrice Tierney used Robert’s bank account to buy them clothes, pay their bills, and keep up their home.

“There was nobody who was caring for them,’’ her lawyer told the judge at her sentencing last January. “So she was, if you will, the surrogate mother.’’

From early on, Patrice Tierney had worked to build a life much different from brothers’, her friends said. Married at a young age to Chew, then a North Shore lawyer, she raised three children in Marblehead, practiced yoga, and played tennis, and was “the perfect wife, the perfect hostess, the perfect mother,’’ said her longtime friend Lucille Grant. As a child, Grant said, Tierney had tried to hold together her dysfunctional family, and she never stopped trying.

“When you’re in a family that’s not perfect, which a lot of us are, you do the best you can with what you have, and your loyalties are torn,’’ Grant said. “Sometimes the burden falls on one person.’’

Tierney was also caring for her mother, who had cancer, and her three children. Her son, John Chew, testified in court that he had substance abuse problems, and worked for a time for his uncle’s gambling business.

In May 2008, Aimee Beth Eremian, Robert Eremian’s 21-year-old daughter, died of a drug overdose at her mother’s home in Boca Raton, Fla. She had completed a drug rehabilitation program just days before. Her body was discovered by her two younger brothers, according to a police report.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts State Police were closing in on Sports Offshore. They scrutinized the Bank of America account in which prosecutors say Robert Eremian deposited approximately $10 million from 2003 to 2009, and Patrice Tierney’s role in mislabeling his income as “commissions’’ in documents submitted to his tax accountant.

Between 2004 and 2010, they alleged in court last week, Patrice Tierney was well compensated for her efforts, writing checks from the account to herself and her mother for $223,000. Tierney’s lawyer - who has acknowledged that Robert Eremian gave his sister monetary gifts, including monthly payments on her leased Volkswagen Beetle - said the sum alleged did not reflect the facts as he understood them.

“I was being appreciated,’’ Patrice Tierney testified. During the same period, 2004 to 2010, her mother donated $4,800 to her husband’s campaign.

A spokeswoman for Patrice Tierney said she is not making public statements. John Tierney said at a debate last year that he did not monitor her interactions with her family “day to day.’’

Standing before a judge a year ago, Tierney admitted her “willful blindness’’ to her brother’s business dealings as she pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the filing of false tax returns. Friends say she is deeply pained at the possibility that she has hurt her husband’s political career with her pursuit of two conflicting goals: to forge her own path without turning her back on her family.

At her sentencing earlier this year, Tierney’s lawyer asked the judge to tailor her punishment to allow her to continue to care for her sick mother. Sentenced to a month in prison and five months of house arrest, she was released from a Connecticut prison in March. Her mother, Mary Eremian, 87, died two months later.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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