PA Authorities Weed Out Unregulated Gambling Devices During Shutdown

Posted on April 7, 2020

In Pennsylvania, the road to degradation — and perhaps infectious germs — are lined with unregulated gambling devices.

At least 15,000 of the machines, and maybe as many as 20,000, are in PA bars, restaurants, convenience stores, pizza joints, fraternal halls, gas stations and truck stops.

As one law enforcement official on Monday told Play Pennsylvania, the illegal machines “are everywhere.”

Cumberland County District Attorney Skip Ebert said, “We have those all over the place.”

Maybe not for long, though.

Casino slots shut down, but unregulated slots remain

Gov. Tom Wolf had weeks ago ordered licensed liquor sellers closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But that has not, so far, stopped many licensees from doing end-runs, allowing customers to continue lining up to feed money into their video gambling devices.

From March 18 to April 2, during the mandated shutdown, the Pennsylvania State Police checked 12,877 liquor establishments for compliance with shutdown orders.

PA State Police found many infractions

In those two weeks, 53 warnings were issued, and four have more serious but pending administrative violations.

Two places had their liquor licenses suspended by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) for failing to abide by the governor’s order.

There was “an influx of public inquiries” about alleged violations, according to PA State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski.

Major Jeffrey Fisher, Director of the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement for the state police, said:

“While our position on the legality of these devices remains unchanged, ensuring public safety in the midst of the ongoing health crisis is our top priority. Liquor licensees are cautioned that in addition to potential unlawful gambling charges, they are subject to citation if they fail to take steps to prevent patrons from remaining on premises to operate video gambling devices.”

Skirting the shutdown orders

Wolf’s order closed liquor-licensed establishments for all but carry-out, delivery and drive-thru food and beverage service. But even those exceptions required social distancing and additional mitigation measures to protect workers and patrons.

Wolf’s order also allowed licensed beer distributors to remain open and sell to licensed grocery stores, convenience stores, and other retail licensees with “to-go” licenses.

The PA State Police press release added that those liquor licensees and also non-licensee businesses, such as convenience stores and restaurants with the machines, should “discontinue the use of illegal video gambling devices in voluntary compliance” with the governor’s orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But some establishments are skirting the shutdown order, allowing customers to play on the unregulated video devices.

Group had called for immediate shutdown of all machines due to virus

Pennsylvanians Against Illegal Gambling (PAIG), an advocacy group, is opposing illegal gambling, which is largely bankrolled by Parx Casino and Racing, on March 20 called for the shutdown of all unlicensed machines, not just those in licensed liquor businesses.

The governor’s shutdown had mandated that all “amusement, gambling, and recreation industries” must stop, which meant more than just casinos.

The reason is the concern that the virus can linger for hours to days on the surfaces of the machines. Players repeatedly touch these screens.

PAIG had called on the Pennsylvania Department of Health as well as county health departments to order business owners to shut down any machines still operating in their establishments immediately.

State police efforts praised

The PAIG group on Monday praised the police for its recent enforcement actions.

“We are encouraged by Pennsylvania State Police’s proactive efforts to address this glaring public health risk,” said Peter Shelly, spokesperson for PAIG.

“The state’s casino industry has stepped up and put the safety of the 20,000 men and women they employ, and the safety of their customers first,” Shelly added.

The state’s temporarily closed brick-and-mortar casinos hold about 24,000 highly regulated and heavily taxed slot machines.

“The continued operation of these (unregulated) machines pose enormous risks to the short-term health of Pennsylvanians and the long-term health and stability of the entire Commonwealth,” added Shelly.

No revenue and no safeguards with unlicensed machines

The state gets no tax from the unregulated devices, and there aren’t any regulatory safeguards in place to assure fairness. In fact, PAIG and the PA Lottery claim the illegal machines divert money, which otherwise would be spent on the lottery.

Revenue from the lottery helps fund senior programs. Lottery officials have testified that the unregulated machines could divert $200 million in funding.

PAIG had called on state and local health departments to order business owners to shut down machines still in operation, but that has not happened.

And the reality is businesses without liquor licenses, but with plenty of unregulated machines, still appear to be getting little or no scrutiny.

Shelly said he is unaware of any enforcement efforts by agencies other than the PA State Police.

Enforcement about to expand

That’s true, but changing.

Play Pennsylvania recently reported grant money from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) has gone to enforcement efforts for local law enforcement to investigate violations and enforce laws relating to unlawful gambling.

The PGCB recently joined the enforcement fray by labeling the machines illegal following a court ruling where an enforcement stay was lifted.

The following jurisdictions got grants:

  • $250,000 for the District Attorney’s Office in Delaware County, which is where Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino and Racetrack is located
  • $221,025 for Bensalem, the host city for Parx Casino and Track
  • $154,336 for Cumberland County
  • $114,802 for Lackawanna County, which contains Scranton and the Dunmore Borough police (Mohegan Sun Pocono is in nearby Wilkes-Barre.)

More ammo against unregulated gaming devices

Ebert, the DA in Cumberland County, just west of Harrisburg, said Monday he hopes to soon have the grant money in hand. But preliminarily, he had already asked detectives to do an informal survey.

“The word I got back is these machines are just everywhere,” he said.

Ebert said he plans to order surveillance and then begin seizing machines and bringing cases once the grant money is available.

The American Gaming Association has backed a push for new laws against the devices. On Monday, the AGA provided PlayPA an update on the organization’s unregulated gaming efforts.

According to Senior Director of Government Relations Jessica Feil, the problem with illegal machines is most acute in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Missouri. The AGA is actively sharing information and resources with enforcement agencies in those regions.

According to Feil, the AGA:

“Continues to work with industry stakeholders across the country to monitor the spread of unregulated machines into new states. While Americans are eager for entertainment in the current environment, it is more important than ever that it does not come from unregulated machines that do not appropriately prioritize responsible gaming or public safety.”

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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