Gray joins critics of online gambling’s path to approval

Support is evaporating among key city officials for the District’s controversial Internet gambling initiative, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) now among those criticizing the un­or­tho­dox path it took to becoming law.

Gray’s pronouncement, delivered through a spokesman, came a day ahead of a Wednesday D.C. Council committee vote on whether to repeal the program. It also follows announcements from council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) that they will support a repeal bill, giving it the votes necessary to go before the full council.

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Although the future of the program is in the hands of the council, Gray’s position could set back efforts by Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), the “iGaming” program’s lead proponent, to rally support among his colleagues.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the mayor has concluded that the process under which the program became law was so convoluted that it should be scrapped — somewhat of a reversal from previous statements.

“His view is that this has become so messy, and there are so many questions about this, let’s repeal it and take a step back,” Ribeiro said. “It’s not something so absolutely critical to the future of the city that we need to do this.”

Brown, who has sought to make the D.C. government the first in the country to offer games such as poker and blackjack online, said he would continue to try to convince his colleagues of iGaming’s merits, but he said he was “obviously disappointed” at the dwindling support for the program.

He noted that many city residents greeted the proposal warmly at a series of community meetings held in the fall. “The community is for it, it’s already the law, it’s had the most exhausting process possible,” Brown said. “It does make you wonder what the issue is.”

But virtually all officials supporting the repeal cited concerns about the circuitous process the proposal followed rather than the merits of Internet gambling.

A hearing last week highlighted irregularities in how city officials went about authorizing the program. Internet gambling was quietly added to the city’s lottery contract as a “non-traditional games” option more than three months after it passed a 2009 council vote; it was later legalized through language added to a 2010 spending bill.

“The hearing was very telling,” Evans said, noting in particular revelations that the lottery contract sent to the council in 2009 made no mention of Internet gambling. “The place where iGaming would have been was blank. We didn’t know we were voting on that.”

Gray was council chairman during both the contract and budget votes, and as the program has become increasingly controversial, he has generally defended it.

In a July interview with NewsChannel 8, Gray said the authorization language included in the December 2010 budget bill “really did get quite an airing” and “was very much out on the forefront.” He has said the city needs the revenue the program would bring in — including $2.2 million in the current fiscal year.

That rationale, however, has been undercut in recent weeks with announcements that city revenue in the current fiscal year is anticipated to exceed expectations by $42 million and that the previous fiscal year ended with a $240 million surplus.

Wednesday’s anticipated panel vote on a repeal measure introduced by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) will be the first time legislators vote on a stand-alone bill devoted to Internet gambling. Should it pass that test as expected, Gray’s support could help sway undecided members in a high-stakes vote of the council’s full 12 members.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) has not taken a position on the repeal bill but has generally opposed gambling. Members David A. Catania (I-At Large), Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) have said they either support the repeal or are leaning toward supporting it.

Byron Boothe, vice president for government affairs for lottery vendor Intralot, said the company would be “extremely disappointed” should the council proceed with repeal.

“We certainly felt like we were doing our part in expending our resources to the benefit of the city,” he said. “At the end of the day, the city is our customer. If that’s their will, then we will bow to that.”

Boothe said Intralot has spent more than $5 million readying its iGaming system for use by the District. He declined to address whether the company would consider suing the District to recover its costs.

Should the full council vote to repeal — the first of two votes could come as soon as Feb. 7 — Brown said he intends to submit a stand-alone bill authorizing the program, one that would include more explicit instructions on what form the program should take. If passed, Evans said he wants a new competitive bidding process for the iGaming contract.

All told, the process could take the better part of a year — almost certainly dashing hopes that the District could be the first government in the United States with an Internet gambling system.

 
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