Panel blows whistle on illegal gambling
JEFFERSON CITY – Gov. Matt Blunt, Attorney General Jay Nixon and the Missouri General Assembly are engaged in a process that pro-family advocates hope will result in fewer illegal gambling devices in the state.
The Joint Committee on Gaming and Wagering started a chain of events July 31 with a letter that its chairman, Sen. John Loudon, R-Chesterfield, hopes will lead to Blunt and Nixon clarifying which of three state agencies has jurisdiction over the devices so that state and local law enforcement officials can better work with the proper officials to reduce the number of illegal machines.
The letter asks Blunt to study the scope of illegal gambling in Missouri and make a recommendation on enforcement of state gambling laws, Loudon said. Blunt Spokesman Spence Jackson told The Pathway Aug. 10 that before the governor can do his part, he needs a legal opinion from the attorney general. When asked to respond, Nixon produced a statement Aug. 14 that said nothing of issuing a legal opinion but did acknowledge the need for teamwork in addressing the problem.
“With each passing year, we continue to see a climate of gambling being fostered in Missouri,” Nixon said. “It is important for the executive branch to have a coordinated approach to working together with local law enforcement to prohibit the expansion of illegal gambling in Missouri. My office will continue to act upon referrals from the Missouri Gaming Commission and upon requests for assistance from local prosecutors to stop illegal gambling.”
Pro-family groups fear gubernatorial politics could come into play on this issue, hindering meaningful cooperation and progress. Blunt, a Republican, and Nixon, a Democrat, are likely to square off in 2008.
“I hope state authorities will not shy away from enforcing Missouri’s laws that are designed to keep the destructive lure of gambling in check,” said Rodney Albert, chairman of the Christian Life Commission of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC). “Our state should not be saturated with easily accessible gambling opportunities designed to suck money out of local economies and family budgets.”
In a May 10 memo, Loudon wrote that according to the Department of Public Safety, there have been more than 500 cases opened concerning the presence of illegal gambling devices. Many of the cases involved more than one machine. Missouri tends to have problems with illegal slot machines and video gambling devices at convenience stores and truck stops. One of these illegal gambling machines was even seized from a McDonald’s.
Law enforcement officials said the problem in removing the illegal gambling devices from convenience stores and truck stops is that often times they are the same exact machines that are being used by fraternal and religious organizations or similar non-profit groups. It is common for county prosecutors to refuse to go after the activities of these so-called good groups for fear of repercussions in the community, law enforcement officials said.
The Department of Public Safety, the Missouri Gaming Commission and the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control are either restricted or reluctant to assume or assert authority, in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials, over the proliferation of the illegal gambling machines, Loudon said. The senator intends to change the current climate, which rarely results in prosecutions, to one in which the governor, the attorney general and state lawmakers will be urged to plot a clear course of action and settle any and all questions about jurisdiction so that more of these devices can be investigated and eliminated. Philosophically, it is clear that Blunt, a Southern Baptist, is on board.
“Governor Blunt is a staunch gambling opponent,” Jackson said. “He opposes it in all forms. Always has, and has a very long record in opposition to gambling. That continues to be his belief.”
Albert laid out the crystal-clear Missouri Southern Baptist position.
“Video machines are but another way to spread gambling’s sinful attraction throughout our state to unsuspecting and vulnerable citizens,” he said. “They are intended to provide ready and easy access to citizens who might otherwise be immune from these addictive behaviors. The presence of these machines weakens our state’s aversion to gambling and foists a deception that gambling is a legitimate activity. Even the smallest expansion of the most subtle form of gambling will have devastating consequences on many families in Missouri.”
Loudon’s staff has been researching the problem of illegal gambling in Missouri for quite some time. One of their sources has been Victor Pitman, Holts Summit chief of police. Pitman would like to see the jurisdiction question settled so that more of these cases can be brought into the judicial system for prosecution.
“Missouri has some of the more well-written statutes on illegal gambling in the country,” Pitman wrote in a letter to Loudon’s office. “The statutes are backed up by clear and definitive case law defining illegal gambling devices (Thole v. Westfall). Several of the illegal gambling cases were submitted to grand juries. The perception of many prosecutors is that the people do not want illegal gambling laws prosecuted or that the enforcement of illegal gambling laws is politically dangerous. However, each of the cases submitted to grand juries indicates that once the public understands the illegal gambling problem they strongly support enforcement.”
In an interview with the Fulton Sun, Pitman explained how troublesome this has become.
“We have a statewide issue going on here,” he said. “Folks have zero idea how big of a problem this is. These distributors in Missouri are operating in multiple counties. They are paying the fines and taking prosecutions as a course of business. Why? Because they are making so much money it’s worth taking the loss.”
An eventual crackdown on illegal gambling devices in Missouri could involve arcade slot machines, games for children that are rigged, raffles and sweepstakes, Loudon said. He noted that a step in the right direction would be to assign either a special unit of the Missouri Highway Patrol or a special division of the Department of Public Safety to the issue.