The Download: Cracking down on gambling
Friday, April 8, 2011
As everyone knows, slot machines and casino gambling haven’t been approved by the Massachusetts Legislature. But what most people don’t know is that devices that closely resemble slot machines have been popping up in small shops across the state for the past few years, sidestepping the legal ban by masquerading as sweepstakes.
Some of the shops are cyber cafes, where patrons buy Internet access and then get to play what are essentially video slot machines with real payouts. Other shops sell phone cards in conjunction with the chance to win cash prizes by playing video slots or poker.
CommonWealth offered a good overview of the situation last August. In the new spring issue, which will be out next week, the magazine details how the state Lottery, which offers officially sanctioned gambling, was so concerned about the machines it told its agents that their licenses would be terminated if they tried to sell scratch tickets and numbers while also operating the slot-like devices.
Local police and politicians have been complaining to Attorney General Martha Coakley for more than a year, and she responded yesterday with regulations covering “illegal lotteries, sweepstakes, and de facto gambling establishments.”
The regulations walk a fine legal line. They essentially say it is legal to sell a good or service in connection with the chance to win a prize, but it becomes illegal “where a gambling purpose predominates over the bona fide sale of bona fide goods and services.”
Coakley’s regulations include criteria for determining whether the gambling purpose predominates, things like whether the good or service is actually used by customers, the manner in which the business is advertised, and whether a customer can play for free and still win a prize. The goal, apparently, is to distinguish between the storefront slot machine operators and the sweepstakes run by Jordan’s Furniture, McDonald’s, and cereal makers.
Perhaps because her regulations are a bit fuzzy and possibly vulnerable to court challenge, Coakley says she also plans to pursue legislation. One bill, filed by Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera (no relation to the AG) of Springfield, is already pending.
Coverage of Coakley’s regulations was very parochial. The Herald News focuses on two cyber cafes owned by Fall River City Councilor Leo Pelletier. The Springfield Republican focuses on a Chicopee establishment. The Worcester Telegram’s story deals with two cyber cafés in town. The Boston Herald quoted the attorney general’s office as saying the phone card video gambling terminals are being operated by about 170 Lottery agents, although that number seems high and conflicts with statistics cited in a court suit against the Lottery by a company selling the phone card “slot” machines.
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