The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has been getting mighty tough on casinos that violate the law.
In March, the board slapped a $68,000 fine on Bethlehem's Sands Casino for six separate incidents in which the casino allowed underage individuals to gamble, drink alcohol, or both. That comes to more than $11,000 for each violation.
An official gaming board release noted that the Sands previously was fined $48,000 in 2010 and $48,000 in 2012 for similar violations. Other gaming board releases have reported the same sort of fines at other casinos.
There were no indications in any of the releases that any casino licenses were in jeopardy, as can happen if a tavern in Pennsylvania is not careful about screening underage customers.
That certainly is a relief, because it will take a casino nearly two minutes of hoodwinking suckers, according to my own highly scientific calculations, to make up for those $68,000 or $48,000 fines.
It probably will take Matthew Eisenberg a lot longer than that to pay off his fine for swiping $200 from a casino, unless he is successful in his battle before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which previously has defied constitutional principles in its zeal to accommodate gambling interests.
I somehow missed the widely reported Eisenberg story until I was channel surfing the other evening and stopped to watch a little coverage of the Supremes on the PNC public television network.
Eisenberg, of Pittsburgh, was working as a poker dealer at the Rivers Casino back in 2010 when he skimmed some $1 or $5 poker chips and slipped them into his tip box.
He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and got probation, but he also was fined $75,000 plus the $200 he had to pay back to the casino. The $75,000 is the minimum a court can impose under the state Gaming Law. The maximum is $150,000, and that range of fines must be imposed for any theft from a casino — even one dollar.
I could not believe all that when I heard it on PCN, so I looked it up. Sure enough, Section 1518 (a) (17) says such a theft is "a misdemeanor of the first degree" and the guilty party "shall be sentenced to pay a fine of … not less than $75,000 nor more than $150,000" for a first violation. For subsequent violations, the fines double.
If a casino cheats you, however, there is no fine, no misdemeanor, no nothing. Cheating by casinos is specifically allowed under state law, as upheld by the Supremes.
Eisenberg's lawyer, Michael Santicola, argued during the court session that a $75,000 fine for taking $200 (or even $1) was "excessive" under the Pennsylvania Constitution and "cruel and unusual" under the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
If Eisenberg had been convicted of stealing $200 from anyone in Pennsylvania other than a casino, Santicola observed, he would have faced a fine ranging from nothing to $10,000, tops.
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Amy Constantine countered that special provisions are needed to protect the gambling industry. "The fine clearly exists both to punish and deter thefts within casinos," she argued. (That reflects the wishes of Pennsylvania politicians, who have gone to great lengths to protect the gambling industry, which has given them millions in "campaign contributions.")
Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin joked during the hearing about how Eisenberg might be able to pay his fine. "I think you take the 200 bucks, put it on red, and let it ride until you get $75,000," Eakin said.
In any case, it could be months before the Supremes decide the Eisenberg case.
I called the Gaming Control Board to get its take on all this, but no one got back to me.
Santicola told me his goal is to have the gaming law declared unconstitutional, at least as far as $75,000 fines are concerned. He said that fine is required for the theft of "anything of value. … It could actually be a penny." He also confirmed that, under the law, casinos are allowed to cheat customers with no sanctions of any kind.
It is not necessary for casinos to swipe poker chips one at a time. Slot machines, for example, can be rigged to dish out or deny whatever jackpots the casino operators desire at any given moment.
If you don't believe it, check out the stories about politicians who, soon after helping to enact laws to accommodate the gambling industry, would walk into a casino and hit big jackpots just a few seconds after starting to play a slot machine.
For example, in 2008, after then-Gov. Ed Rendell helped ram through legislation allowing for slot machines to be rigged, he visited a Chester casino and was steered by casino bosses to a particular machine, where he won a $2,000 jackpot on his third spin. Similarly miraculous jackpots were won by various state legislators who had given the gambling industry what it wanted.
In view of what happened to Eisenberg, she's lucky she got away with just being deprived of her jackpot. She could have been accused of trying to swipe the casino's money, with a corresponding fine of $75,000, or $150,000, or whatever.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.