Funds Are Available To Crack Down On Illegal Gambling, But Who Wants Them?

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Given concern in Pennsylvania over clearly or potentially illegal gaming devices, it might seem that funds available to law enforcement to crack down on the machines would all be readily put to use.

That is not the case.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board recently found few takers for the grant money it is prepared to dole out for investigations of unlawful gambling in the state.

The gaming board initially set a Jan. 21 deadline for police departments, district attorneys, state police, task forces, and others in law enforcement to apply for grants it has available from an $2 million allocation set aside from state casino revenue.

At its March meeting, the board approved four grants totaling $740,000. Due to the lack of applications to take advantage of the remaining $1,260,000, it announced it was reopening the application process.

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Five entities involved in approved grants

The four grants announced March 11 were:

  • Bensalem Police Department in Bucks County, $221,025 for educational and enforcement efforts
  • Cumberland County district attorney’s office, $154,336 for salaries, benefits, capital equipment, and training events
  • Delaware County district attorney’s office, $250,000 for salaries, training, and enforcement
  • Lackawanna County district attorney’s office and Dunmore Police Department, a shared $114,802 grant to finalize an ongoing investigation and cover costs of personnel, equipment, expert witness fees, and public education

Much of the conversation about illegal gambling in the state recently has revolved around increasing popularity at various outlets of “skill games,” thousands of which can be played at public locations such as bars, convenience stores, and gas stations, as well as in private clubs. Their existence, seemingly operating in a “gray area” of the law, is a hot source of debate in the state.

For years, state police and other agencies have occasionally busted up video poker operations or sports betting rings.

Such investigations and prosecutions have not generally been seen as a high priority given other law enforcement responsibilities, however, unless organized crime is involved or public complaints become vocal about a particular operation.

In the case of the skill games, there is added hesitation due to debate over whether they are legal or prohibited, a matter still to be sorted out by the courts and potential new state legislation.

The locations that host them say they are a key source of revenue to support their operations, while the casino industry and Pennsylvania Lottery maintain they are an unfair, untaxed, competitor that should be wiped out.

For those who want to continue gambling since the shutdown of all the state’s casinos March 17 due to COVID-19 health concerns, such devices are one of their remaining opportunities.

Group raises health concerns about continued play

The 27 truck stop locations with 135 legal video gaming terminals similar to slot machines have voluntarily suspended play due to the virus, according to the gaming board. The gas stations and markets still open with unsanctioned gambling devices, however, could be allowing people to play them. The gaming board has no control over those.

That continued gambling opportunity has been raised as a health concern by a Parx Casino-backed group that has been trying to get law enforcement officials to crack down on the skill games for months.

“At a time in which Pennsylvania casinos have made the difficult but appropriate decision to shut down to protect the health of their patrons, employees, and the public, these machines continue to attract gamblers of all ages,” said Peter Shelly, a spokesman for the group, calling itself Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling.

He said the group is now hoping state and local health officials will act to force shutdown of play on the gambling devices, since the virus can be spread by contamination of the surfaces of such machines.

“You don’t have to be a health expert to know that the extended period of times in which players interact with these machines could accelerate the spread of coronavirus to some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Shelly said.

Photo by Valery Evlakhov / Shutterstock.com

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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