Little demand for funds to fight illegal gambling

A player puts a dollar coin in a slot machine. (AP Photo/Curt Hudson)
A player puts a dollar coin in a slot machine. (AP Photo/Curt Hudson)
Posted: March 13, 2014

When Pennsylvania legislators legalized casino gambling in 2004, they created numerous pots of money - some big, some small - that are fed by gamblers' losses.

Among the smaller funds is the Local Law Enforcement Grant Program, which started with $5 million a year from slot machine revenue but was reduced to $2 million a year in 2010 because there was too little demand for money that could only be used to fight illegal gambling.

Even after that reduction, the Local Law Enforcement Grant fund, administered by a unit of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, has built up a surplus of $8.5 million.

The tight restrictions on the money seem to limit demand, said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys. Illegal poker games "are the kinds of things D.A.'s don't go out looking for," Long said.

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, for example, said that for years his office had no interest in using the grant money to shut down small-time games of chance.

But last year, after receiving information that there was some fairly "organized activity and large-scale activity going on," his office won a grant of $206,500 to help pay for an investigation.

"Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to give you any of the good stuff at this point. We have absolutely used this for an investigation that I'm going to be very proud of when we finally go public," Heckler said Friday.

The two biggest recipients of the grants are the offices of the Philadelphia and Delaware County district attorneys. Each has received a total of $700,000 in three separate grants.

Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for Philadelphia's district attorney, said the money was used for a gambling task force with two full-time detectives and eight assistant district attorneys. The investigations unit has made 66 arrests since 2010, she said.

Delaware County's district attorney uses the money to pay salaries and other expenses in its economic crimes unit, which investigates illegal gambling, spokeswoman Emily Harris said.

Steven Latzer, a deputy district attorney in Montgomery County, which has received $650,000 in three grants, said "the money is used to fund gaming investigations, which are primarily undercover."

The program has given out $5.58 million statewide since inception, according to the Gaming Control Board. Altogether, $25 million has been put into the fund since it started, though the 2010 amendments to the state's gaming law required that $12.5 million of the surplus be moved into the state's general fund.

Other relatively small pots of money funded by gambling include the Compulsive and Problem Gambling Treatment Fund, which has received $42.7 million, and the Forest Reserves Fund, which has received $68.6 million.

Of the $14.5 billion Pennsylvania gamblers have lost in slot machines since late 2006, the biggest chunk, $4.94 billion, has gone to supplement property taxes. The horse racing industry was the next biggest, with $1.67 billion.

Chester County is the only Philadelphia-area jurisdiction that has not applied for a local law enforcement grant.

"The need in Chester County is just not that great, if you compare it to someplace like Philadelphia County and Delaware County," District Attorney Thomas Hogan said.

Hogan said his office has used its own resources to bust high-stakes poker games and "gambling operations around dog fighting, but we're much more concerned about the dog fighting."



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