As state and county officials debate proposals for a casino at Rosecroft Raceway or a billion-dollar, Las Vegas-style venue at National Harbor, gambling and games of chance — both legal and illegal — already pervade Prince George’s, whether it’s secret games of dice and poker at nightclubs, church bingo or the scratch-off lottery tickets sold to patrons as they do their wash at a Riverdale laundromat.
In recent months, investigators said they have raided or identified nearly two dozen illegal mini-casinos in the county. Veteran gamblers say there are many more. During a recent raid at a District Heights laundromat, a patron complained to detectives that he had lost $5,000 to the illegal slot machines and that the officers were preventing him from winning it back.
“It seems like every direction we turned — slot machines,” said police Sgt. Laurie Hall, who is in charge of Prince George’s anti-gambling enforcement. “It’s not like a big secret.”
There’s been “a significant increase in the amount of illegal gambling” around the county, said Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George’s prosecutor who handles gambling cases and also serves as a state delegate. “The more that we’ve got legal gambling to spread around, the more we’ve got people to think, ‘Well, we can do this illegally.’ ”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker (D), a longtime opponent of legalized gambling in the county, last month reversed himself and announced support for “high-end” gaming at National Harbor, the hotel and conference center on the banks of the Potomac River. A casino, Baker said, would create thousands of jobs and generate a gush of new tax revenue.
The first vote on allowing up to 4,750 gaming machines at a Prince George’s casino is expected in a state Senate committee this week.
Opponents argue that gambling is no way to promote long-lasting economic development in Prince George’s and that it would taint a predominantly African American county already struggling with high rates of unemployment and foreclosures.
“It’s like putting crack in front of a recovering addict,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). “We have a lot of people struggling in our county. Why put it in their back yard?”
Yet many of those games of chance, legal or otherwise, are already in their back yards, if not around the corner. And not just in Prince George’s.
Illegal gaming flourishes in many locales across the region. In August, police seized $1 million and 70 gaming machines during a raid at the Eden Center in Falls Church.
In Prince George’s, the illegal offerings vary from place to place. Investigators recently found a cybercafe in Fort Washington with more than three dozen slot machines churning tens of thousands of dollars a week. Other places might have one or two machines. In some cases, the machines are hidden in back rooms, their existence advertised by word of mouth.