Originally created 12/11/97

Judge urged to make video poker illegal



COLUMBIA -- One of every five people who play video gambling in South Carolina may be addicted to the machines, two researchers said Wednesday as lawyers asked a federal judge to declare the industry an illegal lottery.

The federal lawsuit was filed in June on behalf of at least 39 video poker players. They seek triple the amount they lost over four years, plus punitive damages.

In addition to asking U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson to declare video gambling illegal, the players' lawyers asked him to keep game rooms from selling beer or wine and from promising to pay out more than the state limit of $125 per person daily.

"We've got a hell of a problem in South Carolina with video poker," lawyer Richard Gergel said.

South Carolina's Supreme Court said in 1991 that payouts from the machines were legal, and the Legislature has tried to regulate what has become what the state says is a $1.7 billion industry.

With next year's statewide elections approaching, however, an all-out political and legal assault on video gambling has begun. Gov. David Beasley says he wants to shut down the industry, and last week state Attorney General Charlie Condon, also a Republican, told police that as of next Monday they can start arresting those making payouts.

Lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney J.P. "Pete" Strom, say the industry breaks state laws to get players to spend more money. The gaming companies deny that.

Frank Quinn, a clinical director of Carolina Psychiatric Services, said the study shows video poker addiction likely will get worse as the industry grows.

"The most striking finding is that approximately one in five players in South Carolina is now a problem gambler," Mr. Quinn said.

Among the other preliminary results from the 1,157 people surveyed:

One in 20 video gamblers considered suicide because of the games.

A third spent the last dollar in their pockets on video poker.

More than 26 percent played for more than five consecutive hours.

"And we have not even scratched the surface yet," said Cathy Pike, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of social work and one of the researchers.

"In my opinion, the only reliable method to avoid a massive increase of problem gambling in South Carolina over the next several years is to prohibit video gambling devices," Mr. Quinn said.

The study was done through surveys in video gambling establishments and random interviews in all 46 counties between August and December, and was sponsored by the plaintiffs' lawyers. The survey cost about $8,300, but the total cost cannot be determined until the study is completed, the lawyers said.

The lawyers also filed box loads of undercover pictures and other documents in federal court that they said show the industry flouts the law.

The state Supreme Court has rejected Mr. Condon's attempt to quickly reconsider whether video gambling is an illegal lottery, saying a lower court needed to consider the facts first.

Mr. Condon supports the federal court lawsuit, said Reggie Lloyd, an assistant attorney general.

"The fact they're taking this approach should support what we've been saying all along. Hopefully, people will now realize that we didn't just invent this argument," Mr. Lloyd said.

The Revenue Department says video gambling operators made almost $500 million last year. Mr. Beasley has acknowledged the industry's power probably makes it politically impossible to eliminate.

Voters in 12 counties banned payoffs in 1994, but the Supreme Court said that would create an illegal patchwork of criminal laws. The Legislature changed the penalties from criminal to civil, but gambling operators again are challenging that in court.

By Jesse J. HollandAssociated PressCOLUMBIA -- One of every five people who play video gambling in South Carolina may be addicted to the machines, two researchers said Wednesday as lawyers asked a federal judge to declare the industry an illegal lottery.

The federal lawsuit was filed in June on behalf of at least 39 video poker players. They seek triple the amount they lost over four years, plus punitive damages.

In addition to asking U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson to declare video gambling illegal, the players' lawyers asked him to keep game rooms from selling beer or wine and from promising to pay out more than the state limit of $125 per person daily.

"We've got a hell of a problem in South Carolina with video poker," lawyer Richard Gergel said.

South Carolina's Supreme Court said in 1991 that payouts from the machines were legal, and the Legislature has tried to regulate what has become what the state says is a $1.7 billion industry.

With next year's statewide elections approaching, however, an all-out political and legal assault on video gambling has begun. Gov. David Beasley says he wants to shut down the industry, and last week state Attorney General Charlie Condon, also a Republican, told police that as of next Monday they can start arresting those making payouts.

Lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney J.P. "Pete" Strom, say the industry breaks state laws to get players to spend more money. The gaming companies deny that.

Frank Quinn, a clinical director of Carolina Psychiatric Services, said the study shows video poker addiction likely will get worse as the industry grows.

"The most striking finding is that approximately one in five players in South Carolina is now a problem gambler," Mr. Quinn said.

Among the other preliminary results from the 1,157 people surveyed:

One in 20 video gamblers considered suicide because of the games.

A third spent the last dollar in their pockets on video poker.

More than 26 percent played for more than five consecutive hours.

"And we have not even scratched the surface yet," said Cathy Pike, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of social work and one of the researchers.

"In my opinion, the only reliable method to avoid a massive increase of problem gambling in South Carolina over the next several years is to prohibit video gambling devices," Mr. Quinn said.

The study was done through surveys in video gambling establishments and random interviews in all 46 counties between August and December, and was sponsored by the plaintiffs' lawyers. The survey cost about $8,300, but the total cost cannot be determined until the study is completed, the lawyers said.

The lawyers also filed box loads of undercover pictures and other documents in federal court that they said show the industry flouts the law.

The state Supreme Court has rejected Mr. Condon's attempt to quickly reconsider whether video gambling is an illegal lottery, saying a lower court needed to consider the facts first.

Mr. Condon supports the federal court lawsuit, said Reggie Lloyd, an assistant attorney general.

"The fact they're taking this approach should support what we've been saying all along. Hopefully, people will now realize that we didn't just invent this argument," Mr. Lloyd said.

The Revenue Department says video gambling operators made almost $500 million last year. Mr. Beasley has acknowledged the industry's power probably makes it politically impossible to eliminate.

Voters in 12 counties banned payoffs in 1994, but the Supreme Court said that would create an illegal patchwork of criminal laws. The Legislature changed the penalties from criminal to civil, but gambling operators again are challenging that in court.