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Monica Yant Kinney: Lawmakers ought to protect problem gamblers

If there's an upside to an elected official being charged with stealing $225,000 to play high-stakes slots, it's that the money is recoverable.

If there's an upside to an elected official being charged with stealing $225,000 to play high-stakes slots, it's that the money is recoverable.

Michael H. O'Neill, 50, had to be bonded to become Jenkintown's tax collector, so the borough will recoup his losses and not have to cut services in response.

How O'Neill, now disgraced, unemployed and facing prison, will cover that mark is anyone's guess, but it's a safe bet Parx Casino won't offer to split the difference. Nor will any casino staffer be charged as an accessory to O'Neill's crimes.

The Bensalem slots parlor is known as a "grind joint," a casino catering to low-rollers.

No less an authority than Parx's own CEO Dave Jonas recently marveled that most of his customers drop $25 to $30 a visit, three to four times a week, lured by free parking and the ability to smoke themselves into a cancer ward.

At Parx, a suburban bureaucrat blowing $181,599 over 12 months should raise eyebrows. Instead, players like O'Neill raise the profit margin - exactly what Pennsylvania legislators intended when they gave casinos the keys to the state.

Shared guilt?

Prosecutors routinely charge supposedly well-meaning parents who host basement keggers for underage drinkers. Civil lawyers sue bars for serving that last drink to the driver who causes a fatal DUI.

So shouldn't a casino be held liable for enabling a player's financial demise, whether on his own dime or through embezzlement or theft?

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman won't make a judgment, except to say that there's no law on the books she could charge Parx with violating even if she wanted to.

"We've unfortunately had a number of fraud and theft cases where someone entrusted with bank accounts makes use of an institution's funds for their purposes," the prosecutor told me. "Oftentimes, the addiction is gambling."

Casino operators have long argued that it's not their job to police player behavior, that it's too hard to determine who can afford that $10,000 bet and who cannot.

"Suppose that tax collector had inherited money, suppose he made a bundle on a house sale," explained Ed Ellers, a retired casino CEO who now "gives back" by teaching gaming law at Temple's Beasley School of Law. "You never know where people's money comes from."

With casinos, we know where it goes: to the house. And with every player a sure thing, no casino would ban big spenders.

Former Eagles owner Leonard Tose blew $50 million gambling. When pressed to pay off his markers, the once-powerful man sued the Sands. He'd lost at blackjack. And then he lost in court.

Years later, Steve Wynn sued basketball legend (and admitted problem gambler) Charles Barkley over a $400,000 debt. The athlete paid, so now he can continue to play.

If not limits, then what?

Some argue that daily betting limits could prevent catastrophes like Michael O'Neill's. Iowa tried it, Ellers said, but the rules hurt the little guy more than they helped.

"If you're down and want to try to recover your losses, you can't."

High-profile, high-dollar flameouts like Tose's, Barkley's, and O'Neill's may be the exception, but problem players will become more common as casinos proliferate state by state.

Compulsive gamblers may be small in number, but they make up an unhealthy percentage of profits. With slots revenue taxed at 55 percent in Pennsylvania, the state is a willing recipient of every cent siphoned from Little League accounts, churches, or school districts, not to mention tight family budgets.

Pennsylvania casinos have no obligation to coddle adults who walk through their doors, ATM cards in hand. But legislators were elected to protect, not neglect. Government ought to be more than a silent partner to an industry that takes far more than it gives.