PUBLIC SMELLS GAMBLING CORRUPTION

Published: Friday, December 10, 1993
Edition: THIRD
Section: METRO
Page: B7
Type: OPINION
Byline: James Gill

Text:

Gov. Edwards pooh-poohs polls that show that hardly anyone trusts him or gambling regulators and that most people want to do away with casinos and video poker machines.

The public is against the land casino in New Orleans even before it opens and favors pulling the plug on the gambling paddlewheelers when only two have so far opened for business.

This, regardless of Edwards' skepticism, is eminently unsurprising, for the B smell of corruption grows stronger daily.

No need to rehearse all the sleazy dealings here, but the gambling industry hardly appears to be on the up and up when the No. 2 man at the New Orleans Police Department spends, by his own account, "thousands of hours" working for a video poker company and makes no apology for being mobbed up, and when the vice chairman of the Riverboat Gaming Commission has to take the Fifth Amendment at a grand jury hearing in Baton Rouge.

Edwards himself is no fan of video poker, which was legalized when Buddy Roemer was governor. The purpose, according to the sponsor of the legislation, Peppi Bruneau, was to put the kibosh on the masses of illicit machines then to be found in barrooms all over the state and to establish a legal and taxable industry.

Well, the illegal machines are still there, according to State Police, who have also discovered that purportedly legitimate video poker companies are tied to organized crime.

Meanwhile, a new and strange breed is now abroad, people who will play the machines for hours, pausing occasionally to run to the ATM. That the game may be addictive and ruinous to some is, of course, no reason to deny its pleasures to everyone else, but if the purpose of the law was to clean up video poker, it has evidently failed miserably.

Government is, of course, making a few bucks out of the game, it being impossible for a machine to lose, but whether the revenues are worth the social costs of legalizing a mug's game is far from certain.

That, however, is not why most people are against it, for the lottery, a mug's game if there ever was one, retains the affections of the masses. Still, few people invest heavily on the lottery, which seems to be regarded as harmless fun. And there's always some chance that lightning could strike.

Poll respondents nevertheless do not trust the lottery board. In fact, they trust it less than they trust the Legislature, which is really hard to explain.

The lottery board has not actually pulled any major scams, so far as is known, and its poor showing in the poll may owe more to the public's instinctive distrust of governor-appointed boards than to any knowledge of its operations.

The public does, however, have more confidence in the lottery board than in the riverboat gaming commission, as, indeed, it should. When the riverboat commission awarded "certificates of preliminary approval" to 15 applicants in June, it was an obvious case of choosing political cronies, bereft of relevant experience, over reputable and well established companies. You'd almost have thought the governor was orchestrating the whole thing.

Yet one respondent in four actually trusts the riverboat commission, which suggests that a lot of people haven't been paying attention. Still the commission is regarded, deservedly, as the slipperiest outfit in the unsavory world of state gambling regulation.

The public may want to scrap most forms of gambling legalized in the last couple of years, but it will not, of course, get its way. It is far too late to pull back on the Rivergate casino, which, indeed, is bound to revitalize the city's economy somewhat, although some of the projections we have heard will naturally turn out to have been somewhat sanguine.

At least we won't be disappointed if crooked goings-on are revealed in the gambling industry. Few people expect it to be otherwise.

James Gill is a staff writer.


Copyright The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.