The Wagers of Sin

When the Jefferson County district attorney's office went after a dozen bookies from a Golden boiler-room sports-betting operation last year, the defendants contended they weren't doing anything different from those who operate supposedly legal offshore sports-betting lines advertised on Denver radio and in newspapers.

Deputy District Attorney Dennis Hall, who prosecuted the bookies, actually thinks they may have a point. But, he notes, it's a lot harder to make a case against offshore gambling connections than it is against someone who set up his telephones on Lookout Mountain.

For one thing, Hall says, offshore betting lines are usually established in countries that don't have extradition treaties with the United States. For another, the 800-number or 888-number bookies, who claim in their ads to be both "safe" and "legal," seem to fall into a gray area of the law.

And then there's the question of whether gambling is a "victimless crime," not worth the time and money it would take to prosecute--at least not when the culprits are some guys warming their toes on the beaches of Antigua or Costa Rica in between calls from schmoes who want Denver and thirteen points.

Super Bowl Sunday is the single biggest betting day of the year. Last year, Las Vegas, with the only legal sports books in the United States, took in $81 million in Super Bowl bets. Experts estimate that ten times that much is bet illegally.

Richard Hancock, the "financier" and boss of the Jefferson County sports bookmaking operation, won't be taking any bets this year. He's in a California jail on a bookmaking charge after fleeing this state to avoid a racketeering charge. He can't be brought back to Colorado until he is sentenced in California.

But the last of the other local bookies was sentenced last week. He and his cohorts had been charged with racketeering; all pleaded guilty to a lesser crime of professional gambling and received probation and community-service hours. "And a lecture from the judge never to do it again," Hall says with tongue firmly in cheek.

It wasn't the bookmaking operation itself that piqued Hall's interest. It was the defendants' claims that a double standard exists.

Hall agrees with those claims. "The way I read the law," he says, "if it's illegal to place a bet in the state on either end of the telephone line, it's illegal."

Meanwhile, the offshore operators aren't the only bookies trying to lure Coloradans. Almost every sports talk show carries ads for sports betting lines, often promoted by famous sports personalities. Similar ads crop up in the sports pages of the local dailies.

Some bookmakers operate out of Nevada and require that a bettor first appear in person to open an account with a credit card. Subsequently, a call from anywhere places a bet. The Nevada legislature voted in 1996 to allow licensed bookies in the state to accept wagers from around the country.

Most of the other bookies, like the Club Colonial Casino in San Jose, Costa Rica, are overseas and require a minimum deposit. "After that you can bet as much as you want," says a woman at the casino, speaking with a Spanish accent.

Asked if she thinks placing a bet from Colorado is legal, she replies, "I guess so." Then she fetches George, who also speaks with a thick accent--only his sounds like it's from New Jersey.

George says the difference between the Club Colonial Casino and other offshore bookmakers is that the casino has been in business for 24 years. "You know when it's time to collect that we're going to be here," he says. "Some of these other guys, they get an office somewhere, run a few ads, take deposits, then disappear on Super Bowl Monday."

Offshore betting lines have been around a half-dozen years, says George, though they've proliferated in the past couple of years. "It's big business," he says. "There's hundreds."

Asked the same question about legality, George responds, "It is for us. It's legal down here.

"But," he adds before hanging up, "I don't give legal opinions."
Those who say that interstate or overseas bookmaking isn't illegal usually make the argument that the actual wager occurs in the state or country where the gambling is legal. However, the federal Interstate Wire Act makes it a crime to use a telephone line that crosses a state or national boundary to transmit information for the purpose of placing bets.

Hall says he's waiting to hear the results of a couple of test cases now in Wisconsin courts. One contends that overseas telephone bookmaking violates the Interstate Wire Act. The other is a consumer-advocate case that contends the bookmakers are lying when they say their operations are legal.

But most gamblers want to know: Will these overseas bookies pay off? Echoing George in Costa Rica, Hall says the same things that would make prosecution difficult--the overseas location--could make it difficult for a bettor to collect. "The days of loan sharks and bookies being connected and running around breaking people's knee caps if they didn't pay up may be a thing of the past," says Hall. "But what do you do if some guy in Antigua has your money and then won't pay up?"

Arnie Wexler, who together with his wife runs a counseling service out of New Jersey for compulsive gamblers, believes that the overseas bookmaking operations are illegal. He also thinks they're making it a lot easier for gambling addicts to get in over their heads.

"The easier it is to bet, the more people who get in trouble," says Wexler, who is testifying this week before the National Gambling Commission on this very subject.

Wexler contends that state-sponsored lotteries are responsible for hooking people who may never have visited a casino or placed a bet in their lives. And he adds that picking up the telephone in the confines of a living room is even easier.

Asked how the state can prosecute gambling when it sponsors lotteries, Hall says it's not his decision to make. "That's like the argument that because the state allows alcohol, it should allow marijuana," he says. "It's a policy decision, determined by the legislature. There's not some absolute moral code."

When he began looking at the telephone bookmaking operations, Hall says, he was surprised at the number of gambling opportunities being offered in the privacy of a bettor's home.

"There's sports books on the Internet," Hall says. "You give them a credit card number and you're set to go. And I understand 'virtual casinos,' where you can spin the roulette wheel or play craps--all the things you can do in a real casino--will soon be online if they aren't already.

"It's the cutting edge of white-collar prosecution right now. But it's unclear on how it's going to go."

And by the way, Hall says, it's illegal to phone in a bet from Colorado. However, he notes, traditionally the cops go after the bookie, not the person making the bet.


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