'Potential for Abuse'

November 28, 1993

Maryland's attorney general says "there are virtually no real regulations, restrictions or controls" on the Eastern Shore's $32-million-a-year slot-machine gambling. The speaker pro tem of the House of Delegates says, "You don't have to have indictments to know that this is out of control." An alarmed governor wants a county-by-county probe of these gambling activities.

But don't hold your breath waiting for reforms. Those who favor gambling are in the driver's seat. They have friends in high places who will block bills aimed at regulating games of chance.

It's not only the Eastern Shore. In Prince George's County, where County Executive Parris Glendening and the County Council belatedly are trying to rein-in a $16 million-a-year casino industry, a judge has stopped a crackdown on charity casinos. Yet both federal and local officials fear the situation is ripe for corruption.

That's not how gambling groups see it. Without Las Vegas nights, these groups can't do good deeds. Sniffed one of their lawyers, "If they don't run the casinos, the programs for senior citizens and boys and girls are out the door." Pull out the hankies.

On the Shore, the feeling is similar. Slots gambling is so reputable there is no need for "state control." Said the commander of a VFW post, "We're all veterans. We don't believe in thievery."

But that's hard to tell from the organizations' reports filed with the state. In one case, a club used paper napkins to record slots wagers. Another group co-mingled club dues and slots money, making it impossible to find out how much -- if anything -- was given to charities. Some clubs defined charities as fireworks displays, parades, prom nights and even donations to the re-election committee of a county sheriff -- the one supposedly overseeing slots gambling.

A 15-month probe by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran turned up no crimes. But he failed to audit the club records and only zeroed in on the annual reports filed in Annapolis. What actually occurred in these Eastern Shore clubs should now be the subject of a new investigation.

That's what Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to see happen. Curran admitted these slots are "vulnerable to abuse," and that "we should do something" before a scandal hits. The attorney general recommended last week a state commission and tougher reporting and auditing standards. That's not enough. He also needs to get cracking on a follow-up probe on the Shore.

It will be tough for the legislature to regulate gambling because of such defenders as Cecil County's Sen. Walter Baker, who chairs the committee handling gambling matters, and Del. Tim Maloney, a powerful House leader who as a private lawyer represents casino interests in Prince George's County. That's why a more intense probe of the slots industry by Mr. Curran is imperative.

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