The scramble is on to launch an online casino in the District, which is the first jurisdiction in the United States to sanction online gambling. Cash betting on Texas hold ’em, blackjack and bingo is to begin in September.
But officials have not settled several questions that have been raised about online gambling, starting with whether their plans are legal. The chairman of the D.C. Council’s finance committee said that he and some of his colleagues didn’t know anything about the gambling legislation when it was passed last year and still have much to learn.
The committee will look at the issue Wednesday at a hearing on the implications of the gaming initiative, which was was tucked into a budget bill six months ago and passed into law with little public vetting.
“We didn’t even know it was in there,” said the finance committee chairman, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is convening the hearing. “This was requested to be put into a supplemental budget back in December, without any hearing, without any notice, without any anything.”
To plant a gambling toehold, the District would be sidestepping federal restrictions on Internet gambling that have led to an FBI crackdown on online poker sites.
The U.S. attorney’s office in New York charged 11 executives from three leading Internet poker companies with criminal violations in April, essentially closing down the U.S. operations of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker.
D.C. officials hope to fill that void and are confident they can without Justice Department scrutiny by keeping the business inside the city. The office of the chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, has said there is “no consensus” on the legality of the plan.
Despite the city’s timetable, officials have not resolved disagreements over which public spaces are suitable for online gambling, an ambivalence reflected in city policies. In many instances, government computers block the type of gambling sites the District is trying to set up.
The system is being designed by experts from the District’s Greece-based lottery contractor, Intralot. The D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board would get half of the revenue. Finance officials, extrapolating from national trends, said the city could take in perhaps $13 million in three years.
Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who sponsored the legislation, acknowledged that the bill moved quickly. He said the expedited public process reflected his urgency to find revenue to help the less fortunate during the budget crisis. He also expressed concern that the rising use of illegal gambling sites leaves increasing numbers of residents “with no protection at all.”