Easing of poker penalty sought Video game fines due vote

December 11, 1990|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

A bill proposed by a Baltimore County councilman just after he lost his council seat last month would effectively soften the penalties for illegal operators of video poker machines.

William R. Evans, the former councilman, said he could have proposed the measure before Election Day but didn't want to place other candidates under pressure before the election. Save for another measure allowing Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs as pets, it was the only substantive bill proposed after an election that saw most of the council overturned.

The video poker machine bill is to be voted on Monday after the council considers it at a work session today.

The machines aren't illegal in the county; only cash payoffs made to players are. Until now, the county Department of Permits and Licenses has suspended the licenses of machines proved to have been used for illegal gambling, taking the devices out of action for one to six months. Some machines are confiscated altogether by county police.

More formal regulation for the penalties has been discussed for a long time. But the police, for one, feel the penalties suggested in Evans' bill are inadequate. Evans said he doesn't mind if the proposed penalties are increased.

Evans' bill would invoke a $500 fine for a first violation, and license suspensions for subsequent violations.

But because the video poker machines commonly used for illegal gambling often produce up to $1,000 a week in untaxed revenue, the fine would be a lesser penalty than a license suspension.

The bill deals with administrative regulation of the licenses required for each machine, not with criminal penalties for those accused of permitting illegal gambling.

Baltimore County sells the licenses for $150 each, but permits and licenses director Ted Zaleski said that he had no specific written guidelines to use when a machine with a county license was found to be used for gambling. He used to suspend all the licenses for six months, then reduced that to cut down on appeals by vending company owners.

Evans, a lawyer who represented the Perry Hall-Fullerton area of northeastern Baltimore County for the past four years, said his only purpose was to provide the specifics that were lacking in regulating all coin-operated machines.

Evans lost his office in the Nov. 6 election to Republican William A. Howard, R-6th. He introduced the bill after the election, just before he left office.

In campaign finance reports filed with the state elections board, Evans received $780 in ticket purchase contributions from Rossville Vending, a major machine vendor based in Rosedale, out of the total $119,207 Evans raised.

Rossville is owned by Joseph J. Stonik, a frequent contributor to county political campaigns and the host of a yearly Christmas party that is usually well attended by county officials and an occasional judge.

Stonik's company was one of the targets of a 1985 series of raids on illegal video poker machine gambling operations statewide, conducted by State Police and the state prosecutor. Stonik paid $65,000 in fines as a result, and was given probation before judgment on several charges arising from the raids. Police estimated that his company alone had understated or failed to report more than $9 million in revenues from video poker machines.

County vice detectives say the only real purpose of the machines is gambling, and some eastern county bars would close without the illegal revenues from their video poker machines.

The machines are outlawed in Pennsylvania. In Maryland, state's attorneys in most Baltimore area counties prosecute video gambling. Anne Arundel County authorities, in fact, have refused to issue licenses for the machines on the grounds that they are gambling devices. But Baltimore County and the city issue the licenses and depend on vice detectives to enforce the gambling laws.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor has said for years that she considers video poker gambling a low priority because cases take too much time and manpower to make, and usually result in lengthy trials, small fines or dismissals.

Despite O'Connor's philosophy, video poker gambling is a serious problem among gambling addicts, said a director of a Baltimore-based non-profit treatment center for compulsive gamblers.

Valerie C. Lorenz, director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling, said that up to half of the participants in her treatment group sessions are addicted to using the coin-operated machines.

The danger, she said, is that they introduce gambling to relatively poor people. One of her patients, who agreed to speak anonymously, said he routinely dropped up to $200 a week, virtually his entire paycheck, into the machines each payday.

"There was no stopping me," once he began gambling, he said. He would play each week until he had no more money and sought treatment only after his wife threatened to leave him.

pTC County Attorney Arnold E. Jablon said the penalties in Evans' bill could be changed, but must be imposed in stages of severity, with the ultimate penalty, revocation of a machine license, the final step. The law as proposed in Evans' bill calls for a $500 fine for a first violation, the fine and/or a 30-day license suspension for a second time, a $1,000 fine and/or a 90-day suspension for a third violation, and revocation of the license for a fourth offense.

Vice detectives say their manpower would be sorely stretched to make repeated gambling cases that would result in the more severe penalties being imposed.

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