Predatory Gambling In the Crosshairs

It used to be that if you wanted to play slot machines, you’d have to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

Now, they’re everywhere.


And not everyone is happy about it.

A grassroots movement is emerging to reverse the nationwide penetration of predatory gambling.

Grassroots organizers want to get rid of it. And by it they mean almost all forms of government sponsored gambling — slot machines, casinos, lotteries.

And they are starting to make a splash in the media.

Last year, comedian John Oliver did a 15 minute piece ripping apart lotteries.

Later this year, a documentary — Out of Luck — will be released exposing the downside of lotteries.

MIT Professor Natasha Schull has written a book length expose on slot machines titled Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. (Princeton University Press, 2012.)

CBS News’ 60 Minutes featured Schull on a 2011 piece titled Slot Machines: The Big Gamble.

And now, the grassroots movement has taken a page from the anti-tobacco warriors.

They’ve started a Predatory Gambling Liability Project.

And it’s headed by a former Assistant U.S. Attorney — Michael Fagan, with support from legendary tobacco litigator Richard Daynard and the Public Health Advocacy Institute.

“Most every successful social movement has had four pieces to win,” Les Bernal of Stop Predatory Gambling told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Legislation, education, direct action and litigation. As a movement over the last eight years, we have tried to build momentum in all four of those areas.”

“On the litigation side, for the first time in modern American history, there is a major case against casino interests that was filed in West Virginia, in Wheeling, in August 2014. It is currently pending in West Virginia federal court. The lead attorneys are Terry Noffsinger and James Bordas. The plaintiff is Stacy Stevens. She’s the widow of Scott Stevens. He was a successful CFO. He worked for a multimillion dollar family owned business in western Pennsylvania. He was very successful.”

“Then he went to Las Vegas to a conference, was introduced to slot machines. He started playing the slot machines locally at the casino in Wheeling. He started losing. He embezzled millions from his employer to feed his slot machine addiction. This isn’t like some Joe on the street. He was an incredibly successful family man, businessman — everything you would want in a person.”

“He got hooked on these slot machines. In August 2012, he drove to a soccer field in his hometown — a soccer field he helped raise money for — called the EMTs so they could pick up his body, and he shot himself in the park.”

“His wife is suing the casino owner and the slot machine maker — IGT. They are putting the slot machines on trial. It’s the best case that has been brought.”

“The litigation piece is happening,” Bernal said. “And we’ve launched the Predatory Gambling Liability Project. It’s chaired by a former Assistant U.S. Attorney out of St. Louis — Michael Fagan. We have more than 30 attorneys from across the U.S. including Richard Daynard, the legendary tobacco litigator. He heads the Public Health Advocacy Institute.”

What about direct action?

“People went into casinos, put money into the slot machines and the people just sat in the chairs,” Bernal relates. “We were technically playing the machines, but we weren’t playing them the way the casinos want us to play them. It was a protest that got some press.”
Bernal says that predatory gambling “extracts enormous amounts of wealth from everyday people.”

“And it’s not just the poor — middle class, low income families,” Bernal says. “It’s probably one of the biggest wealth extractors in our society. It destroys families. Unlike alcohol or drugs, you don’t know what is happening to this person until they are done with everything. You don’t see it. People who are alcoholics will tell you — with alcohol, after ten beers, you stop. Your body cuts you off. But with gambling, you chase. People stand up six or seven days straight at these casinos — losing everything they have. Chasing means you go to the casino with $100. You go through that. Do you hit the casino ATM or go home? People who chase their losses go to the ATM. Mathematically, the machines are rigged against you. But if you show your propensity to chase, the casinos will come after you like no other business in America with exploitive tactics. And they get away with it because government is a part of it.”

Bernal says that people who have been victimized by predatory gambling are fighting back.

“In Illinois, Melynda Litchfield is our national victims advocate there,” Bernal says. “She was a talented, successful nursing supervisory for an intensive care unit for a major hospital outside of Chicago. She had been there for 27 years, happily married with three children. The state of Illinois located a casino near her house — about a twenty minute drive from where she lived. Over time, she became addicted to slot machines. She became so addicted to these machines that she embezzled hospital supplies from where she worked and sold them on eBay just to feed her gambling addiction. About three years ago, she got divorced. She was caught by the hospital. She almost took her own life twice. She lost her nursing license for a year. She has now made this issue her calling. She’s going out and standing up for the millions of Americans who are being exploited everyday. We refer to them as the expendable Americans.”

Bernal says that both the Republican and Democratic parties are bought off by the predatory gambling industry.

“A lot of establishment politicians say things like — I don’t like gambling, but it’s here,” Bernal says. “We have to do it. They will try to distance themselves from it. Yet they will take all of the campaign money. They will allow it to come into their state.”

“Deval Patrick in Massachusetts quarterbacked it in,” Bernal says. “Martin O’Malley in Maryland quarterbacked it in. Andrew Cuomo in New York. A lot of Democrats are pushing it.”

“This will be the first time we have big gambling candidates in the Presidential field. Chris Christie in New Jersey. Hillary Clinton had Jan Jones on her finance committee. Jan Jones is one of the key government affairs people for Caesars Casino.”

There are exceptions.

“Marco Rubio was a strong opponent of state run gambling in Florida,” Bernal says. “I would expect Bernie Sanders to speak out against it.”

“The new Massachusetts Attorney General, Maura Healey, won her 2014 primary largely on this issue,” Bernal says. “She was opposed to casinos. She has been publically strong against casinos.”

What about the labor unions?

“The labor unions have been advocates for predatory gambling in the United States,” Bernal says. “They see it as an organizing tool to get labor union members. The building trades want the casinos because they want to build them. Some of the unions, like SEIU, want to organize the workers. Never mind how the casinos make their money — they just want to add to their ranks.”

[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Les Bernal, see 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 29(12), July 24, 2015, print edition only.]

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