Playing three phony poker chips last summer at a Council Bluffs casino started Rear Adm. Tim Giardina's troubles.
But when Giardina told conflicting stories about how he wound up with the counterfeit $500 chips, things got worse.
“I was not forthright in my response about how I came into possession of the chips in question,” Giardina acknowledged in a signed statement to prosecutors last August.
Now Giardina's distinguished Navy career is in limbo. He has lost his job as deputy commander for the U.S. Strategic Command. His retirement and possibly even his freedom are in jeopardy.
Until now, authorities had released few specific details of what happened at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs last June 15. In an interview Wednesday, Giardina, too, declined to answer questions about those events, but he did talk about the tension and uncertainty in his life ever since.
“I think you can appreciate,” he told The World-Herald, “the last thing I want to do is get out in front of a case with specifics and anger the people who make judgments about my future.”
But interviews with law enforcement sources and Giardina's own signed statement tell a tale of gambling chips doctored with purple paint, valuables supposedly found on a casino restroom floor and false explanations given to investigators. In his August statement, obtained through a public records request, Giardina acknowledged his deception. Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber said he insisted on the statement as a condition for not pursuing felony charges.
Giardina, 56, had been a regular at the casino for months, playing several evenings a week.
The staff at the Horseshoe knew him as “Tim,” a middle-age fellow with glasses who stuck to the poker tables.
But in his day job, he was the No. 2 officer in charge of all U.S. nuclear forces, a decorated career submarine officer who had earned the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, six Legions of Merit and a host of other awards since graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1979.
Giardina said he doesn't care for gambling and doesn't have a gambling problem. But he said he has always liked low-stakes poker, which he described as a game of skill rather than chance.
“To me, poker is a sport,” he said. “I grew up playing it. It's part of the Navy culture.”
His tour at StratCom, which began in December 2011, was the first time in his long career that he had been posted somewhere so close to legal card rooms.
Last June, Giardina was playing in the Horseshoe's poker room. Law enforcement sources say he returned from a trip to the men's room and told a casino employee that he had found some property — he didn't say what — on the restroom floor. He told the employee that if anyone came forward and could describe the property, he would turn it over.
No one did.
The property, Giardina later told authorities, was some poker chips, gaming vouchers, coupons and a money clip.
During the evening, Giardina acknowledged in his statement, he used the three $500 chips from the restroom at the poker table. Early the next morning, he cashed out and went home.
Sometime that night, another patron cashed out, too. But while counting out that patron's chips, the cashier noticed that three of them didn't feel right.
“The people that work at the casinos — especially those that are cashing out the chips — they can tell right away if one of them is different,” said David Dales, a special agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation who worked on the case.
A close inspection showed that three $1 chips had been doctored with purple paint to look like $500 chips. The patron protested that he didn't know where they came from.
State investigators at the casino spent hours looking over surveillance footage. They tracked the chips to Giardina.
Two days later, the investigators interviewed Giardina, who they only then discovered was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Navy.
Under questioning, he claimed that he had purchased the phony chips from a man he met in the restroom and whose name he didn't know.
It's not clear to investigators why Giardina told a different story than the one he initially told the floor supervisor at the casino. But they again checked footage from surveillance cameras and found no evidence of anyone else leaving or entering the restroom around the time Giardina went in.
Dales said state investigators held several meetings with county prosecutors and waited several weeks before contacting military law enforcement authorities at Offutt.
“Once we found out who he was and what he was, it changed who we would reach out to,” he said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service opened an investigation at that time but has declined to comment on it.
Using counterfeit gambling chips is against the law, Dales said, and it also constitutes second-degree theft. Both are felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison.
On Aug. 29, Giardina sent his signed statement through his attorney to Wilber, the Pottawattamie County attorney.
Wilber, after consulting with Dales, decided against pressing charges. He said he would let the Navy investigation follow its course.
Because of the investigation, Giardina said, he already had been removed from duties connected to the nuclear program.
In early September, Gen. C. Robert Kehler — who was then the StratCom commander — also removed him from all access to classified information and recommended that he be reassigned.
His office was moved to his on-base house, Giardina said. He took leave in order to help his wife, Missy, while she recovered from knee replacement surgery.
The incident became public following a World-Herald story Sept. 28. Less than two weeks later, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved Giardina's reassignment from his three-star position at StratCom to a two-star billet at Navy headquarters in the Pentagon.
That move, Giardina said, cost him about $2,000 a month in salary and would cut his future retirement pay.
Giardina had been slated to be reassigned to another three-star position, but that was derailed, apparently because of the NCIS probe. A Navy official said Wednesday that its investigation is continuing. But Giardina said he has been told that it is essentially complete and that he will learn shortly what Navy leaders intend to do.
“I expect resolution fairly soon,” Giardina said. “I've been frustrated that a case I thought was very straightforward has taken months of investigation.”
He's also upset because, he said, before he was suspended and reassigned, he never had a chance to explain what happened that night at the casino.
“I basically thought ... I'd be treated fairly,” Giardina said. “I never had a chance to tell my side of the story and face my accusers. I was totally ignored, even though I made those requests to the commander of StratCom and the secretary of defense.”
Lt. Col. Stephanie Bounds, a StratCom spokeswoman, said the command isn't authorized to answer questions about Giardina's case and referred all questions to the Navy press office at the Pentagon. Navy officials declined to respond.
With the decision near, Giardina has decided to wait to discuss the specifics of June 15 and its aftermath. But he now wishes he had spoken up about them earlier.
“By not saying something early on, I allowed this to happen,” he said. “I clearly would have mounted a very vocal and active defense.”
As soon as the case is resolved, Giardina said, he hopes to fully explain what happened and restore his reputation.
“I've got a hell of a lot to say,” he said.
World-Herald staff writer Andrew J. Nelson contributed to this report.