Originally created 04/17/99

New gambling investigation nixed



AIKEN -- One of the Senate's most vehement foes of video poker, Aiken's Greg Ryberg, is not getting the investigation he sought into whether state gambling regulators tried to skew a federal lawsuit that accuses the industry of racketeering.

So he's asking again.

The State Law Enforcement Division declined late Friday to look into how Department of Revenue Director Elizabeth Carpentier arrived at a ruling that disputes addicted gamblers' claims that the industry is a criminal enterprise.

The controversial ruling says that the DOR, which regulates video poker, has never treated it like a crime to violate the state's $125-a-day cap on payoffs.

Ms. Carpentier said the agency never imposed criminal penalties for bigger jackpots, which routinely occur, but opted instead for fines and sanctions.

Mr. Ryberg said court documents in the case, where the cap is a pivotal issue, made him wonder if the revenue official and poker magnates were in cahoots.

The case could get thrown out of court if it's determined that big jackpots are not crimes that amount to racketeering.

Mr. Ryberg, a Republican, had asked SLED and state Attorney General Charlie Condon to investigate Thursday after reading a deposition that said a poker baron asked for a ruling on that issue and Ms. Carpentier pushed one through in short order.

SLED opted not to investigate late Friday after conferring with Mr. Condon, said Hugh Munn, spokesman for the state's top law enforcement agency.

"When we are asked to investigate anything, we go to the prosecutor involved and ask two key questions," Mr. Munn said: "Is the conduct in question a crime? And, if we prove it happened, would you prosecute?"

Mr. Condon, the state's chief prosecutor, "has answered those questions by asking the governor to do his own internal inquiry," the SLED spokesman said.

After receiving the Aiken senator's request, Mr. Condon wrote Gov. Jim Hodges, who appointed Ms. Carpentier, and asked him to "determine whether these allegations are serious enough to be investigated by my office."

His letter said the state needed to get to the bottom of the allegations but questioned whether his office was the one to do it. Mr. Ryberg said he hasn't changed his mind, however.

"If Mr. Condon doesn't want to get involved, then I think SLED should go to a different prosecutor," Mr. Ryberg said. "They have the authority to ask a solicitor those same questions, and my next step will be to suggest they do that. From what I have read and seen, I'm not saying it's necessarily criminal, but something is certainly not right."

He cited case documents that suggest Ms. Carpentier has had numerous meetings with key figures in the video poker industry and a notation on her calendar to keep an industry lawyer "in the loop."

A Hodges spokeswoman said the governor has not been presented with any information that would justify an investigation.

"This is a politically motivated play," Nina Brook said, "the substance of which is much ado about nothing."

DOR spokeswoman Vickie Ringer said there was nothing unusual in the way Ms. Carpentier handled the request for a ruling and nothing odd about the speed with which one came down. Some take longer than others, she said, but this one was simple to derive, since it reflected a longstanding agency policy.

The Hodges administration favors civil penalties rather than criminal penalties for violating the $125 payoff cap and hopes to abolish the cap altogether.

Margaret N. O'Shea is a reporter for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.