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Risky Business: Legal and Illegal Gambling in Idaho

"People inside said, 'You warned us last time. Why didn't you warn us again?'"

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It was a full house.

"In addition to the people operating the gambling operations, there were probably nine or 10 in one location and another seven or eight at the other," said Boise Police Sgt. Mike Harrington. "And there were two operations running, not just one."

All bets were off when Harrington and his vice-narcotics unit raided two locations July 16--one in the 4400 block of West Emerald Street and the other in the 4700 block of Emerald.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Boise Police Department announced that it had busted up the operations, resulting in a slew of citations for alleged gamblers and criminal charges against four adults, three of them members of the same family: 59-year-old Timothy Lough; his 60-year-old wife, Jo Anne Lough, and their 33-year-old son, Travis Lough, all from Meridian. Along with 32-year-old David Deboer, also of Meridian, all four were each charged with a misdemeanor count of gambling. Deboer has already pleaded not guilty and faces a jury trial, set to begin Thursday, Oct. 3. The three Loughs will first face a judge during their Wednesday, Aug. 14, arraignment at the Ada County Courthouse.

Apart from the rarity of seeing a father, mother and son arrested at the same time, it was equally surprising to see a gambling bust on the BPD police blotter.

Harrington ought to know; he's been on the force for 30 years, 20 of them with the BANDIT unit--that's the Boise Area Narcotics Drug Interdiction Team.

"We've had very, very few gambling arrests," said Harrington, who has led BANDIT since 2003. "This is the first time I personally participated in the bust of a gambling operation. Most of the time, we send our community policing team to a gambling complaint and they usually issue a warning," he said.

When Boise Weekly and other media outlets reported the July 16 bust, some online comments pushed back against the arrests.

"This disgusts me that this is news," wrote blogger Barden Barnes at boiseweekly.com.

"We sure have become extremely conservative," wrote a blogger dubbed Biglar.

"Very lame to have a law making this illegal, even worse spending the money to enforce it," wrote Wilson at idahostatesman.com.

"I read the blogs," said Harrington. "For those people thinking Boise Police is regularly going after gambling operations, we're not. We're addressing the complaints of our citizens. Maybe some people don't care. But the businesses next door to these particular gambling operations did care."

And that was what made this bust different, said Harrington: The alleged gambling operations were in a business park.

"[It was] complaints from businesses that triggered our investigation," he said.

Boise Weekly also learned that a monthlong investigation into the alleged gambling operation included detectives who infiltrated the gambling ring undercover.

"It's going to be pretty hard for the operators to dispute this," said Harrington. "We had people inside."

Harrington said it's typical for his crew to give a verbal warning when they first call on a complaint of gambling.

"When we address a complaint, we tell those people that may have been gambling to shut it down and we won't take any further action. Well, most of them shut it down," said Harrington. "But in this case, it was my decision that we were going to give citations to the gamblers and arrest the facilitators."

When police started reading people their rights, Harrington said some of the alleged gamblers were incredulous.

"People inside those gambling establishments said, 'You warned us last time. Why didn't you warn us again?'" said Harrington. "Our job is to protect the community and that's all we did here. Citizens complained. We're not going to say, 'Sure, they're gambling next door, but we're not going to enforce that.' We had to do something."

Meanwhile, legal staff at the city of Boise attorney's office is preparing its prosecution.

"But I would definitely say that this is not common," Assistant City Attorney Kevin Borger told Boise Weekly. "I really don't remember having a whole lot of these cases."

Idaho State Code 18-302 prohibits anyone from participating in gambling, or knowingly permitting any gambling to be played. Those convicted of the misdemeanor face a fine not to exceed $300 or no more than six months behind bars.

"[The three Loughs'] first court appearance, something called a pro-se arraignment, is where an Ada County magistrate judge would tell them their rights," said Borger.

To those who think that gambling is a victimless crime, others tasked with dealing with problem gamblers say illegal betting has a considerable cost to families and employers.

"We estimate that a problem gambler costs society $715 per year. A pathological gambler costs society $1,200 a year," said Megan Fludd, founder and executive director of the Utah-Idaho Council on Problem Gambling. "It affects their jobs and it certainly affects the amount of time they spend with their family."

UICPG estimates, based on national numbers, that there are 23,000 Idahoans with a gambling problem; another 11,500 are considered pathological gamblers, meaning that they continue to gamble even after they have developed social or economic problems as a result of their habit.

"It's a chemical or neurological rush, very similar to drug addiction," Fludd told Boise Weekly. "But there's something worse about a pathological gambler. They chase losses."

Fludd, who has worked for four years on efforts to curb problem gambling, said a drug addict doesn't necessarily pursue an overdose, but a gambling addict will keep going until they are nearly or completely ruined.

"Most of the time, it's not about money at all. They don't care about getting their money back. They just want to win," she said. "It's a progressive action; they want to bet more money more frequently and they experience a restlessness or irritability when they attempt to stop."

Fludd said there is no poster child to represent the problem gambler.

"We're talking about pastors and grandmothers," she said. "Most recently, I've heard of an 11-year-old calling our national helpline [1-800-522-4700]. That's terribly young."

Fludd said the ever-expanding popularity of Internet-based gambling is a chief culprit.

"It's the next big thing," she said. "You're seeing it on social media sites. Take, for instance, Facebook. It has games on its site that you can buy into and can play for rewards. It's there in your home anytime you want it. And this way, the addict becomes very isolated."

UICPG is an affiliate of the National Center on Problem Gambling.

"We're seeing many people in the state of Idaho who just can't deal with the problem effectively," she said. "And we're connected closely with Gamblers Anonymous in Idaho."

But when Boise Weekly tried to access an Idaho chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, we could only find four ongoing meetings in the entire state, none of them in the Treasure Valley. Three of the weekly GA meetings, in Coeur d'Alene, Pocatello and Twin Falls, are closed --reserved for addicts only--and one, in Idaho Falls, is considered open, meaning friends and family of an addict are welcome to attend.

Fludd was quick to add that her organization takes "a neutral stance" on legalized gambling, understanding, for example, that betting on state lotteries are legal forms of recreation.

"But even lotteries can be compulsive. We've heard people call our national hotline that have spent an entire paycheck or entire Social Security check on a lottery," said Fludd. The state of Idaho has never spent a dime of public funding for the treatment or prevention of problem gambling. Fluud said she was anxious to reach out to the Idaho Lottery Division to have an ongoing dialogue.

The man tasked with overseeing Idaho's lottery doesn't see any tangible connection between compulsive gambling and the Gem State lottery.

"But yes, we're in contact with the National Center for Problem Gambling and we have regular dialogue," said Jeff Anderson, who since 2007 has served as the dual-director of both the Idaho Lottery and Idaho State Liquor Commission (BW, Citizen, "Jeff Anderson," March 6, 2013).

Anderson said the lottery division was not the go-to agency to deal with compulsive gambling issues.

"We have 'play responsibly' messages on all of our lottery tickets and in our advertising, but statutorily, we're not charged with overseeing or funding [gambling prevention] programs," he said.

By all accounts, Idaho State Lottery is a successful business model--perhaps the most successful in Idaho. With no revenues from Idaho's General Fund, the lottery grew to nearly $198 million in sales for FY 2013. And the lottery returned record annual dividends to the state, totaling $48.2 million, the largest return in Idaho's history. The dividends were divided among the Idaho Department of Education, the state's Permanent Building Fund and Bond Levy Equalization Fund.

"Our mission is to maximize that dividend for our beneficiaries," said Anderson. "If we can responsibly manage the ticket portfolio to make sure we're meeting consumer needs and interest, then we're doing our job. But there's not a lot we can do about jackpots."

And for those who think the record-setting jackpots in recent Powerball drawings drive lottery sales--on Aug. 7, winners shared a jackpot of $448 million--Anderson said the real winner for the lottery were instant winners, such as scratch tickets.

"Of the $198 million in Fiscal Year 2013, $108 million were scratch games," said Anderson, who added that the lottery was always looking to introduce new, "fresh" games. "A scratch game is something we can control. When the last top prize is claimed, another takes its place. We introduce as many as 50 games each year."

Anderson said the lottery regularly ramps up its "play responsibly" message, especially when the jackpots get considerable.

"When that jackpot gets big, like it did recently, you start to hear more messages on the radio and television that encourage people to play what they can afford. It's supposed to be fun."

But he cautioned that the lottery is a very sober enterprise.

"We take our job very seriously. It's a terribly complicated business," said Anderson.

A part of Idaho Lottery's responsibility includes management of charitable gaming. In fact, a full-time position at the agency is dedicated solely to the oversight of the scores of raffles, bingo operations and casino nights that fill the social calendar throughout the year.

"There are limits to what those operations can allocate to administrative costs and the minimums that must go to charity," said Anderson. "If you're continuing to run afoul of the statute, we have to deal with it."

Boise-based Aardvark Entertainment runs many of the larger casino nights for charities.

"We've done several casino nights for the large fundraisers, like the Idaho Foodbank," said Aardvark employee Ruth Wagner. "Roulette, craps, blackjack, you name it. We just did a big event for St. Luke's."

Wagner told Boise Weekly that her company's employees serve as professional dealers but understand all of Idaho's limitations--which set charity casino nights apart from the illicit games that the Lough family and Deboer were charged with operating.

"We have to be very careful," she added. "No money ever crosses hands. But everybody gets great bragging rights. And that's better than cash. It's all about the charity."

Anderson said charitable gaming events require a license obtained through his division. And for those that aren't on the up-and-up, they face possible prosecution.

"We have our own enforcement division," he said. "There have been instances in the past where people have been doing illegal things. They've been shut down and prosecuted."

Meanwhile, Boise Police Sgt. Harrington said his BANDIT unit isn't going to be "looking at everybody's poker night," charitable or not.

"That will never happen," he told BW. "We understand it's an old law, but it does exist. Perhaps it will be changed in the future. Who knows? But we're sworn to uphold the law."

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