Over the next three weeks, thousands of people and hundreds of businesses across the Augusta area will participate in illegal gambling operations. Authorities already have said they will let it slide.
Talk about March Madness.
“There is no question that office pools associated with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament are illegal,” said Jim Allen, an employment lawyer at the Augusta law firm Fuchler Hagler.
Georgia law clearly states that any person who “makes a bet upon the partial or final result of any game or contest” can face a misdemeanor charge of gambling.
Will the gambler face charges, though, is a different question.
According to Pregame.com, wagering on last year’s March Madness tournament exceeded $12 billion, more money than what was riding on the 2013 Super Bowl.
Of that, 50 million people contributed $3 billion to office pools, a gambling operation so widespread that authorities say they probably won’t take out charges against illicit rings.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a pool in every major business in Augusta,” said Sgt. Richard Elim, an investigator for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. “But as far as the sheriff’s office is concerned, we really do not get involved unless there is a commercial component to the pools, such as a bookie organizing it to make money.”
Commercial gambling is not uncommon in Augusta.
Last year, the owner of a Mike Padgett Highway store was arrested because of video gambling machines issuing cash payouts, and in 2005, five men were charged after $95,000 was seized from a commercial gambling operation in Richmond County.
William Sussman, an Augusta defense attorney, said such operations charge entry fees for people to gamble and are not comparable to office pools, which he described as small-time crimes.
“It’s participating in a game of chance for money,” Sussman said of office pools. “But as a practical matter, no one at the DA’s office is going to prosecute.”
District Attorney Ashley Wright did not return messages seeking comment, but Allen said the more pertinent question for employers is whether their business is a “gambling place,” a legal term in Georgia that refers to “any type of property in which one of the principal uses is making and settling bets.”
“If you did office pools every week, then you could end up finding yourself running a gambling place,” Allen said.
Allen said two to three clients call Fulcher Hagler each year asking whether their pools are illegal.
Most of them, he said, conduct pools only for the NCAA tournament and the Super Bowl. In such cases, he said, the company, its management and employees are not at risk; if a complaint were registered for weekly collections related to NFL matchups, however, that could present a different ending.
“If you had a complaint, you could imagine something rising to the level where the police would care, but it is very hard to imagine anyone betting that much money on the tournament,” Allen said.
South Carolina follows the same standards.
In fact, only offices in Nevada, where sports wagering is legal; Montana, where sports pools are legal so long as the house doesn’t take a cut; and Vermont and Connecticut, where small-time pools among friends and colleagues are allowed, are in the clear.
Pennsylvania is considering laws that would legalize small-scale sports gambling pools.
Elim said he is not aware of any deputies participating in pools, and Sussman’s practice includes only him and an assistant.
Allen said Fulcher Hagler is the first law firm he has worked for since graduating from the University of Georgia Law School in 1985 that does not have a pool for the tournament. That doesn’t mean he did not have a strategy to offer.
“I tend to like coaches more than teams,” he said. “I’ll bet on Krzyzewski, Pitino and Izzo all day long.”