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John Lefebvre, online gambling and the FBI: Ryerson professor Bill Reynolds talks about his new book

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September 29, 2014

By ROBERT LIWANAG

Staff Reporter

Almost 30 years ago, Bill Reynolds was looking for advice on how to overturn a referendum decision that had gone against University of Calgary radio station CJSW. He turned to John Lefebvre, a lawyer and former student politician who loved to play guitar and smoke marijuana. The two had met previously, back when Reynolds was program director of the campus radio station and Lefebvre was president of the Student Union. With Lefebvre’s help, the decision was reversed and the radio station was allowed to collect one additional dollar per student per term as part of tuition fees. Over time, Lefebvre’s pro bono work has netted the station $1.5 million and counting.

Reynolds, now a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, lost track of Lefebvre for 20 years, until 2007, when he read a news article on globeandmail.com about how the hippie lawyer he once enlisted for help had become a multimillionaire—a multimillionaire charged by the United States Department of Justice with money laundering and racketeering related to his Internet gambling business.

Reynolds’s account of Lefebvre’s wild Internet gambling ride to riches, prison time, and partial responsibility for a $100-million forfeiture to the U.S. government will be published Oct. 1 by ECW Press. Life Real Loud: John Lefebvre, Neteller and the Revolution in Online Gambling was originally inspired by the Globe article about the U.S. crackdown on Internet gambling and the arrest of two Canadian businessmen, one of whom Reynolds recognized as Lefebvre. The book began as an article Reynolds wrote for the Calgary Herald’s weekly magazine, Swerve. Reynolds’s research for the magazine piece led to a visit with Lefebvre at his Malibu mansion and at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles, where gold and platinum records by everyone from Steely Dan to Smashing Pumpkins, the Rolling Stones to Coldplay, hang off the walls. Reynolds observed Lefebvre as he was recording an album of his own songs with some of the best session players in the world.

After a couple of days in L.A., Reynolds had one last conversation with Lefebvre. “In the foyer as I was saying goodbye to Lefebvre, he said, ‘What about a book?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I can’t see this story actually fitting a feature. So that might be a good idea’.”

Life Real Loud documents Lefebvre’s life as a Canadian entrepreneur, lawyer, musician, philanthropist and multimillionaire, along with, as Reynolds puts it, his colourful “wave-your-freak-flag-high” ethos. Lefebvre quit his Calgary law practice many times to work in series of odd jobs, including selling coupon books and busking. Then he got together with his business partner Stephen Lawrence and the two cofounded Neteller Inc., a money transfer system, which provided, among other things, quick and secure transactions between bookies and gamblers.

Lawrence was the business brain and Lefebvre was the marketing brain. The two partners made hundreds of millions, and later resigned their positions while remaining minority shareholders. Several years later, in January 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice charged the pair with money laundering, racketeering, running an unlicensed money transmitting business and promoting illegal gambling. In 2011, Lefebvre served a 45-day jail sentence, paid a $750,000 fine and took partial responsibility—$40 million—for paying $100 million forfeiture to the U.S. government for lost revenue.

Even though Lefebvre’s fortune is not what it used to be (Neteller’s stock price plummeted after news of the arrests broke, and Lefebvre himself estimated that he lost about $100 million almost overnight), he is still a person of substantial means—real estate holdings, stocks, artwork, as well as his collection of motorcycles, automobiles and a jet. He still has long hair, currently lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and is set to marry his longtime girlfriend Hilary Watson.

Lefebvre’s rise and fall was and is complicated, and so is Reynolds’s relationship with him. “That’s what I tried to convey to the reader early on,” he says. “I wanted to set up right away that I did already know the guy, that this is how I knew him back when, that this is what I thought of him back when, and that here am I now meeting him again 20 years on. I thought it would be dishonest of me not to own up to that.”

The writing of Life Real Loud began in February 2008, when Lefebvre flew to Toronto in his private jet to continue conversations with Reynolds. Over the following summers, usually for a week in August, Reynolds would join Lefebvre on the West Coast to conduct a series of lengthy interviews.

Reynolds originally planned to write most of the book while on his 2010–2011 sabbatical in New York (where he had visiting scholar status at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University), but that plan didn’t work out. Stricken by sciatica and busy with a separate writing project, Life Real Loud ended up taking several years to complete. Reynolds says there were many rewrites. “It felt like the game pick-up sticks, where you have long sticks in a jar and you throw them on the floor in a pile and you have to extract them one at a time without moving any of the others—otherwise you lose your turn.” An early draft of Life Real Loud was at one point 175,000 words, and the centrepiece of the book, a lengthy chapter detailing the founding and success of Neteller, took Reynolds four tries to finish.

Reynolds, whose main passion is literary journalism, says the most difficult aspect of writing Life Real Loud was figuring out which part of Lefebvre’s life and personality to focus on. “Is it about the frustrated lawyer who wanted to play music his whole life—is music the theme? Or is the rise of Neteller, and how they did it, the main theme? Or even his sixties ethos—the whole thing about who we were back then, from the first baby boom wave, all the way through to the first dot-com wave and beyond—is that the underlying theme? Or all of them? Probably all of them, and that was a tricky balancing act. Whether I achieved it, I’ll have to leave the verdict to the reader.”

Later, Reynolds decided to focus on Lefebvre’s life from a pure storytelling perspective and to also make his developing relationship with Lefebvre a key part of the book’s narrative. “He wasn’t a superstar; he was an ordinary guy. We get to imagine what we would have done with all of that money,” Reynolds says. “And it’s also ironic. I mean, how would you react if four men and one woman from the FBI rang your Malibu oceanfront mansion buzzer one day—a public holiday, Martin Luther King Day—a day when you might justifiably be thinking that you had the world by the tail? I’m pretty sure people can identify with that.”