A longtime bookmaker from St. Tammany Parish pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to running an illegal sports gambling business in which he paid a website based in Costa Rica to organize bets for clients throughout the New Orleans area.

The bookmaker, Frank J. Frabbiele, 79, of Abita Springs, who has drawn previous scrutiny from law enforcement, faces up to 12 years behind bars for money laundering and violating the Federal Wire Act, a law that forbids the use of electronic communications for gambling.

He will be sentenced Jan. 14 by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.

“There was never a question he was a bookmaker,” Wayne Mancuso, Frabbiele’s defense attorney, said in a telephone interview. Whether Frabbiele realized he was breaking the law by using the Costa Rican website “would have been an arguable point had we gone to trial,” Mancuso added. “This is a negotiated plea, so there’s some give and take.”

Mancuso said it was not yet clear whether Frabbiele might qualify for probation.

Federal prosecutors charged Frabbiele in late July, several months after a former family member of his spoke at length with the FBI about his gambling business.

The informant, who also spoke to The New Orleans Advocate on the condition of anonymity, claimed Frabbiele would keep tens of thousands of dollars in cash in his dresser, and that his bookkeeping was a poorly-kept secret among the authorities in St. Tammany Parish.

“Everybody knew you didn’t go to their house during football season, baseball, basketball — any season,” the source said. “I knew he was doing it there, and he was doing it on the computer.”

Federal court documents show that since January 2008, Frabbiele directed clients to an unnamed “pay-per-head” betting website in Costa Rica that would track, record and register their bets. Dealing mostly in cash, he would “settle up” with bettors — paying out winnings and collecting debts for football, basketball and baseball games — throughout the metro area.

“Frabbiele would also occasionally call Costa Rica via telephone to inform them when a payment was received or paid out,” court documents say. “Frabbiele would receive and input current point spreads and track bets made by his clients via his personal computer.”

The money laundering charge stemmed from a $20,000 cash deposit Frabbiele made in November 2012 into a safe deposit box at Home Bank — money federal prosecutors described as “criminally derived property.”

The guilty plea marked Frabbiele’s second conviction in U.S. District Court for a gambling-related offense. In 1991, both Frabbiele and his wife, Cathy, were convicted of operating an illegal gambling business in a case that stemmed from the FBI’s wide-ranging probe into a large sports gambling business run by Walton K. Aucoin. In that case, the authorities intercepted thousands of gambling-related conversations and determined Aucoin’s operation, in just one four-week period, had raked in about $1.7 million.

Wiretaps led investigators to other bookmakers, and federal prosecutors also filed charges against former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, who was accused of returning copies of seized betting records to Aucoin. Connick was acquitted after a six-week trial in 1990, while Aucoin and two of his associates were found guilty.

The charges against the Frabbieles were filed several months after the highly publicized Connick trial.

Brian Jackson, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time who is now a federal judge in Baton Rouge, took exception to a pre-sentence investigation report that he said sought to minimize Cathy Frabbiele’s participation in her family’s bookmaking operations. Even though the business “did not compare in magnitude” with Aucoin’s, Jackson wrote in one court filing, “it was nonetheless her primary source of support” in 1988, a time when the Frabbieles were exchanging line information with the Aucoin operation on hundreds of professional and college football games.

“It was her livelihood,” Jackson wrote of Cathy Frabbiele, adding that she wasn’t just someone who answered phone calls for her husband.

Frank Frabbiele was sentenced to five months of imprisonment, which a judge recommended he serve at a halfway house. Cathy Frabbiele received three years of probation and was ordered to complete 208 hours of community service.

Federal court records indicate Frank Frabbiele also was arrested several times in Jefferson Parish in the 1980s for gambling but wasn’t convicted. In one case, in May 1989, detectives executed a search warrant at a penthouse on Severn Avenue in Metairie that authorities said “was set up solely for the purpose of gambling.”

Frabbiele was seated at a blackjack table with several other players when the officers arrived and found chips, cards, cash and a dealer’s shoe on the table. A sign on the apartment door told visitors to “tell Lydia when leaving” and to exit through the rear door. Only the dealer, who had $5,000 in his sock, was convicted at a bench trial.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.