Gambling on crime

December 31, 2003

THE SORDID AND costly tales tend to play out so true to form that by now they're almost trite: Take a trusted employee, legalize gambling near her home, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate funds can disappear in a relative flash.

Consider Victoria Long, a 58-year-old Delaware bookkeeper profiled by reporter Michael Dresser in Sunday's Sun. She stole more than $500,000 from a Wilmington firm over just a few years to help feed a suddenly acquired and overpowering addiction to slots at nearby Delaware Park.

Such cases are all too common even among public officials. In Colorado this fall, a county human resources director was jailed for using a county credit card to feed her multimillion-dollar gambling habit. In Connecticut, home to two of the world's largest casinos, a string of town treasurers have been caught gambling with embezzled public funds.

Across the country, embezzlements have soared since the early 1990s, coincident with the nation's big gambling boom. There's a debate over the degree of causation in that correlation. But for many law enforcement officials, it's hardly theoretical: Prosecutors in five states -- Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Rhode Island and Wisconsin -- told The Sun that they've seen the opening of nearby legal gambling spark more embezzlements.

As Maryland's General Assembly next month begins grappling again with the drive to legalize slots by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., evidence for a likely rise in a wide range of crimes adds significant weight to arguments against expanding gambling in this state.

In an exhaustive, controlled study of crime-rate changes from 1977 to 1996 in every U.S. county, University of Illinois economist Earl L. Grinols found that within a few years of the arrival of legal gambling, rates for rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft all rose more rapidly in counties with casinos and their neighboring counties than in non-casino counties.

In some counties, Mr. Grinols found, as much as 30 percent of various crimes can be attributed to casinos. No wonder Louisiana and other states immediately added more state troopers with the onset of legal gambling. No wonder Cincinnati police investigating bank robberies routinely check initially on who's been flashing money around at nearby Indiana casinos.

Maryland's longtime attorney general, J. Joseph Curran Jr., detailed the connection between crime and legal gambling in his 1995 report, "The House Never Loses, and Maryland Cannot Win." His conclusion at that time ought to be heeded by every legislator convening in Annapolis in two weeks:

"We do not need to bring this upon ourselves. We already have crime problems in this state that sometimes seem insurmountable. ... Our criminal justice system is bursting at the seams. A decision to legalize ... gambling would be a deliberate public policy decision that would make this crisis worse. That simply makes no sense."

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