Casinos are gold mine, regulatory headache

September 03, 1995|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he doesn't much like the idea of statewide casino gambling.

But his 12-year record as Prince George's County executive makes it clear that Mr. Glendening has learned to live with a slice of Las Vegas in his own back yard.

Alone among Maryland counties, Prince George's has allowed nonprofit groups to operate full-fledged casinos.

Seventeen volunteer fire companies, boys and girls clubs, and Jaycees groups have tapped into a fund-raising gold mine in Prince George's, running twice-a-week casinos in lodges and fire halls across the county that raked in more than $30 million in 1994 alone. A table is waiting for avid gamblers nearly every night.

The casinos have proved to be part jackpot, part snake eyes -- producing millions of dollars for worthwhile community projects, but spawning allegations of law enforcement and regulatory headaches.

After expenses, the casino organizations reported net proceeds of $7.5 million last year, but many officials, including Mr. Glendening, said they believe that profit-skimming at some casinos makes that number artificially low.

Despite repeated allegations of skimming, tax evasion and other violations, the county provided almost no oversight of its booming gambling industry until two years ago, a decade into Mr. Glendening's tenure.

Mr. Glendening, and many of the county's other elected officials, tolerated the problems, focusing instead on the fire trucks and Little League uniforms purchased with the proceeds, according to supporters and opponents of the casinos.

Mr. Glendening acknowledged he had little success trying to rein in the casinos, which he said have grown far too big. In an interview last week, the governor vowed to push for major reforms in the next couple of years.

"If I had my choice, I would put through tough restrictions to eliminate a couple of them that have become just gambling operations and return the others to real community fund raising," Mr. Glendening said.

This year, the General Assembly sent a signal that it, too, is dismayed by the continuing reports of mismanagement and impropriety. The legislature voted to shut down the casinos in 1997, giving the nonprofit groups two more years to earn money before closing shop.

But many in the county say the deadline is merely symbolic. With so much money at stake, the politically powerful nonprofit groups that run -- and benefit from -- casinos will fight aggressively to remain open, and nobody is betting against them.

Whenever the casino issue came up in Annapolis or Upper Marlboro, it was not gamblers who turned out to testify. Rather, the hearing would be packed with uniformed firefighters and aged users of the day care center built with gambling proceeds.

Political pressure from such groups "can be intimidating," Mr. Glendening acknowledged.

"People know how to use this threat of political retaliation," he said. "I think that's why several reform efforts started out strong and vanished like smoke."

The real betting is fast and furious in places such as the Knights of Columbus hall in Forestville, just off the Capital Beltway. The hall is rented twice a week by the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department.

Its casino, one of the biggest in the county, attracts players in almost equal numbers from Virginia and Maryland, as well as some from the District of Columbia.

Though the hall looks like an oversized club basement -- with linoleum floors and fluorescent lighting -- squint a little, and the casino resembles the more polished versions in Atlantic City. The operation offers valet parking, free food and drinks, check-cashing services and a bank machine (with the casino collecting a $5 fee on each cash withdrawal). Bettors casually order free hamburgers, soup and sandwiches from strolling waitresses who bring the food to the gaming tables.

From noon until 2 a.m. on weekends, players can hunker down at dozens of tables to try to beat the odds at poker, blackjack, roulette, baccarat and pai'gow poker, an Asian card game.

About 2 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, 250 people hunted grimly for a bonanza. Several players plunked down $50 and $100 per hand of blackjack. At the poker tables, bettors dropped $30 or more a hand.

The payoff for the fire company is impressive. On a particularly good day in March, the casino grossed more than $114,000, with net proceeds totaling $83,000, according to the casino's filing with the county.

Last year, after expenses that included $233,000 for food and $53,000 for door prizes, the Hyattsville fire company reported net proceeds of $475,000. The company moved into a bigger hall last fall, and business has gotten better, with the fire company reporting net proceeds of more than $867,000 in the first six months of 1995.

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