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Video poker betting is caught, but hard to punish


The two undercover Baltimore County vice detectives sat quietly in New Monaghan's Pub late on July 22, watching, they said, as players collected allegedly illegal winnings after playing the bar's three video poker machines.

The next day, police returned to the bar in the 2100 block of Gwynn Oak Ave. with a warrant and seized all three machines and $2,504.

A criminal trial for the licensees and bartender is set for Oct. 14.

Whatever the outcome of the criminal gambling charges, the three licensees probably won't be in additional jeopardy from the county liquor board -- thanks to an obscure, 12-year-old clause in the board's rules that prevents it from acting against most bar owners who allow gambling in their businesses.

Although county liquor regulations clearly prohibit all forms of gambling, a 1980 rule change required a criminal finding of guilt or a plea of "no contest" for the board to consider punishing licensees who allow gambling.

The hitch is that most liquor license holders with gambling violations are sentenced to probation before judgment in District Court.

So the liquor board never holds a hearing, even though most gambling cases are based on eyewitness testimony from county police. This means the one agency that can hit convicted gambling operators where it hurts -- in the pocketbook -- never gets a crack at them.

"I've been fighting to get that changed for the past five years," said vice squad Lt. Donald Smith.

He said police who take the time to make gambling cases are frustrated when offenders who make large illegal profits get off with a small fine -- and no scrutiny from the liquor board, which could conceivably suspend or revoke their licenses.

Police estimate that each of the 800 video poker machines licensed by the county grosses $1,000 a week, for a total of $41.6 million a year. There are also 180 newer video slot machines in the county -- "armless bandits" that accept paper money as well as quarters. Some take bills of up $20, detectives said.

Baltimore county vice detectives seized 60 machines in 1991 in 17 gambling raids on county bars and liquor stores. Only four raids have occurred so far this year, with 10 machines seized, because of cuts in the vice squad budget, Lt. Smith said.

Although playing these electronic games for cash payoffs instead of amusement is illegal, they offer little intrinsic entertainment value, and police said they are most commonly used for gambling. The machines are ubiquitous fixtures in bars in Baltimore County and the city, and often provide the extra profit that keeps marginal bars afloat.

Some Maryland counties, including Anne Arundel, refuse to issue permits for video poker machines on grounds that they're for gambling, not amusement. The machines are also illegal in Pennsylvania.

In Baltimore County, where tavern keepers are a potent lobby and frequent contributors to council races, barroom gambling enforcement has never been a high political priority. Politicians and patrons alike see it as a victimless crime, although agencies who deal with gambling addicts say the machines are a real problem.

"The poker machines are probably the most addictive of all forms of gambling. Poker machine addicts represent the largest group of [gambling] addicts in the state," said Valerie C. Lorenz, director of the Baltimore-based National Center for Pathological Gambling.

Ms. Lorenz said video poker gamblers are generally-lower income, blue collar workers who are least able to afford gambling losses.

In 1986, the Baltimore County liquor board voted 2-1 against an attempt to change its rules to allow it to hear cases against bar owners who had been brought to court and sentenced to probation before judgment.

But another review of the board's rules will be under way soon, the new board chairman, William R. Snyder, said this week.

The detectives at Monaghan's that July night reported seeing one man rack up 200 "points" on a video poker machine, then tell a friend he was going to cash in.

He approached the bartender, who asked if the man knew how to "knock off" the points shown on the machine. The man pushed a button that returned the score to zero, and was paid cash for his winnings.

A second patron later cashed in his 160-point total in a similar scenario, the detectives said. The bartender was observed recording the payments on a pad kept next to the cash register. Each point, the detectives said, is worth 25 cents, meaning the first man collected $50, and the second, $40.

Found in the bar during the police raid, according to the police report, were documents showing that the Columbia Vending Service, which owns the machines, had lent the bar owners $30,000. The papers showed the profits are split 50-50 between the bar and the company, police said.

This again is a common situation. According to county police and past investigations, which have shown that vending companies will lend money to bars where business is poor, and in return, the companies keep their machines in the bars and split gambling proceeds with bar owners.

One of Monaghan's three liquor licensees, John K. Milani, is also a member of the board of directors of the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association, according to Steve Xintas, its president. Mr. Xintas said his group has no policy on video machine gambling, either for or against.

Mr. Milani, and fellow licensees John and Frances Griffith, were charged with possession of slot machines and John Benedictis, the bartender, was charged with keeping a gaming table. Mr. Milani's attorney said he would have no comment on the charge.

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