Protecting Baltimore's illegal slots

Council ignores law to let taverns keep `amusement' devices

December 10, 2006|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Special to The Sun

In the back of the Morrell Park bar owned by City Council member Edward L. Reisinger and his family are four video gambling machines. The machines, not surprisingly, have names commonly associated with slot machines. There are two "cherry masters," one "fruit bonus" and one "draw poker" machine.

Last week, the City Council reached a breathtaking ethical low point when its Land Use and Transportation Committee - chaired by Reisinger - voted to send a bill to the full council that would increase the number of these illegal gambling machines allowed in the Reisingers' Good Times Tavern and hundreds of other Baltimore businesses.

On Thursday night, the full council gave its tentative approval to the bill in a 9-4 vote, with one member absent and Reisinger abstaining.

The bill came out of committee almost a year after this writer completed a study for the Abell Foundation revealing a lucrative industry of nearly 3,500 illegal slot machines in Baltimore City and Baltimore County that are licensed by the local governments under the pretense that the machines are "for amusement only."

The report also showed that the industry goes largely untaxed, with machine owners underreporting revenues to the Maryland comptroller by an estimated $63 million to $153 million a year. Owners of some of the largest numbers of the gambling machines are defunct corporations, convicted felons and tax evaders.

The city and county have sanctioned the machines, even though their own vice detectives - and FBI gambling experts - have repeatedly proven gamblers are awarded their winnings by bartenders and clerks, instead of from slots in the machines. Not even a Maryland Court of Appeals decision in 1985 - deeming the machines illegal by design - has stopped the city and county from sanctioning them.

The bill that Reisinger's committee passed last week was a result of this writer's discovery that hundreds of bars and other businesses were violating the city zoning code by having too many machines. For example, a "food market" in Hampden had 17 machines, but the zoning law allowed only two. Many bars, allowed a limit of five machines, had eight or more.

Once the zoning violations were revealed, city council President Sheila Dixon and eight other council members introduced the bill that would increase - in some places double - the number of amusement devices allowed.

The legislation was proposed at the request of the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association, whose president at the time was John Vontran, a leading owner of video gambling machines, with 93 of them placed in businesses and registered last year in the city and county. He is also a generous campaign donor, having given $27,862 to state and local officials in the last seven years, including $375 to Reisinger's campaign.

Reisinger, in a recent interview with this writer for an update on the Abell study, said he and his wife, Maria, know Vontran and are members of the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association.

Reisinger also said he was instructed by the city law department that his conflict of interest prevented him from voting on the bill, but he saw nothing wrong with overseeing the legislation.

"I was objective," he said.

But the record shows he could have dug deeper as the bill's manager - or at least followed up on suggestions and comments made at a council hearing and work session.

The council bill file shows that no representative of the police department testified to council members on the bill, despite a note from a hearing summary that states, "The Police Department will be invited to the next work session and requested to bring statistics on amusement devices' complaints."

Reisinger said he did not know why the police department ultimately was never invited to speak about the bill.

If city vice detectives had been invited to testify, council members might have heard them describe what detectives have said in official police reports they have seen in hundreds of bars over the years, where bartenders pay cash to gambling winners. The reports show that when the detectives raided the bars they confiscated hundreds of dollars from inside the machines, and thousands more stashed in drawers and safes - even in the most rundown taverns.

Reisinger said that his wife and stepson run the bar in which he is a partner and he does not know if they pay gamblers their winnings.

"As far as I'm concerned they're not supposed to pay off," he said.

When told that the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the machines are illegal, he said, "If it's illegal then they [the city] shouldn't be issuing licenses."

The Sun noted last week that Reisinger's bar is in violation of the city zoning law because it has licenses for a total of six amusement devices (the four gambling machines plus two others), one more than the law allows. But if the bill his committee passed takes effect, his problem will be solved.

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