WASHINGTON — The admiral fired last year as No. 2 commander of U.S. nuclear forces may have made his own counterfeit $500 poker chips with paint and stickers to feed a gambling habit that eventually saw him banned from an entire network of casinos, according to a criminal investigative report obtained by The Associated Press.
Although Rear Adm. Timothy M. Giardina’s removal as deputy head of U.S. Strategic Command was announced last year, evidence of his possible role in manufacturing the counterfeit chips has not previously been revealed. Investigators said they found his DNA on the underside of an adhesive sticker used to alter genuine $1 poker chips to make them look like $500 chips.
Nor had the Navy disclosed how extensively he gambled.
The case is among numerous embarrassing setbacks for the nuclear force. Disciplinary problems, security flaws, weak morale and leadership lapses documented by The Associated Press over the past two years prompted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Nov. 14 to announce top-to-bottom changes in how the nuclear force is managed that will cost up to $10 billion.
The records obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act show Giardina was a habitual poker player, spending a total of 1,096 hours – or an average of 15 hours per week – at the tables at the Horseshoe casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the 18 months before being caught using three phony chips in June 2013.
He was such a familiar figure at the casino, across the Missouri River from his office near Omaha, Nebraska, that some there knew him as “Navy Tim.” But they may not have known he was a three-star admiral and second-in-charge at Strategic Command, the military’s nuclear war-fighting headquarters. Strategic Command also plays key roles in missile defense, cyberdefense, space operations and other functions.
A career submarine officer, Giardina is a 1979 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Such was Giardina’s affection for poker that even after he was caught he “continued to come in and gamble on a regular basis” at Harrah’s casino, also located in Council Bluffs, according to an account by an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent that was turned over to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service after NCIS took over the case in August 2013.
On July 18 Giardina was banned from both the Horseshoe and Harrah’s for 90 days, but he returned at least twice to play poker at the Horseshoe before the ban expired. The second time, in October, he was given a lifetime ban from all gambling establishments run by the Horseshoe’s owner, Caesar’s Entertainment Corp.
The report included Giardina’s remarks to a casino security agent about the polygraphs given at Strategic Command to officers holding security clearances.
“(What) they’re really trying to do is find out if you got, you know, if you’re having sex with animals or something really crazy or you’ve got this wild life that you could be blackmailed into giving military secrets out,” he was quoted as saying.
At Strategic Command, Giardina was privy to highly sensitive national security secrets. Legal gambling by Strategic Command officers with security clearances is not prohibited or limited by policy, although if they incur excessive debt they are required to report it, according to the command’s chief spokeswoman, Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze.
Six days after he received the lifetime Caesar’s ban, Giardina was kicked out of the Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas, according to the NCIS records that gave no reason for that expulsion. That casino is not a Caesar’s property.
The state investigator’s report also said a review of surveillance footage revealed “odd behaviors” by Giardina at the Horseshoe.
“Giardina was observed taking cigarette butts out of public ash trays and smoking them,” it said.
Giardina, who remains on the Navy payroll as a staff officer in Washington, was never charged with counterfeiting. Instead he was found guilty in May 2014 of two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer – lying to an investigator and passing fake gambling chips. He was given a written reprimand and ordered to forfeit $4,000 in pay.
The Navy chose not to pursue a court martial because they were uncertain they could get a conviction with the evidence they had, officials said.
In early September 2013 Giardina was quietly suspended from his post at Strategic Command, which he had assumed in December 2011. One month later he was fired and reduced in rank from three-star to two-star admiral.
Giardina did not respond to an AP email request Friday for comment on the investigation report. In May, after the Navy announced his punishment, Giardina told the AP he had no comment.
NCIS denied AP’s original request for the investigation records but released them this month after granting an AP appeal.
The case against Giardina opened in the wee hours of June 16, 2013, when an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent responded to calls from the Horseshoe reporting the discovery of three counterfeit $500 poker chips. Casino surveillance video showed Giardina had played them. Interviewed two days later, Giardina admitted using them but claimed to be an innocent victim.
Giardina said he had purchased $2,000 in chips, including three $500 chips, from a person in a casino bathroom transaction for $1,975 in cash. He said he could not identify the person.
In his interview with casino security on June 18, Giardina said, “I guarantee you I did not do anything wrong,” according to a casino transcript. Trying to pass off $1,500 in counterfeit chips is “not something that even would tempt me,” he said, adding, “It’s not worth risking your whole career over.”
Later, Giardina told the Pottawattamie County, Iowa, attorney in a letter that he misled investigators.
“During the interview I was not forthright in my response about how I came into the possession of the chips in question,” he wrote, according to an NCIS affidavit.
The Army lab that tested the chips and the DNA concluded that the center section of a genuine $500 chip had been photocopied or scanned and then printed onto adhesive stickers. The stickers were then applied to the front and back of genuine $1 chips to make them appear to be real $500 chips. One of the problems, however, was that the adhesive stickers covered up a security feature embedded in the chips and visible only with ultraviolet light.
The counterfeiter also apparently hand painted the $1 chips to try to simulate the color scheme of a genuine $500 chip. Security officials were able to scratch off the paint.
The Army lab that tested the chips confirmed in January 2014 that Giardina’s DNA was a match for the DNA found on the adhesive sticker used to cover the $1 marking on the center inlay of a legitimate chip.
Six days later Giardina’s lawyer notified NCIS that the admiral would not participate in an NCIS interview.