Maryland casinos fined for underage gamblers, who aren’t punished for sneaking in


A line forms last month to get into the new poker room at Maryland Live! casino. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The two security guards posted at Maryland Live Casino’s north entrance never asked the 20-year-old woman for identification. So just after midnight on a Friday night in February, she waltzed onto the forbidden casino floor and headed for the slot machines, where she gambled — and lost — for the next 90 minutes.

A Maryland Live housekeeper noticed the young woman and alerted the slot attendants, who informed a supervisor that there might be an underage person on the 21-and-older-only property. She was soon escorted out of the casino, according to a report filed with the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency.

For the 20-year-old gambler, that was the end of it: There are no penalties in Maryland — yet — for people younger than 21 who find their way into any of the state’s four casinos.

But it will cost Maryland Live: The February incident — and three others in March, one involving a slots-playing 18-year-old — resulted in a $20,000 penalty against the state’s largest casino.

A consent agreement signed by Maryland Live on Sept. 5 and by gambling regulators last week marks Maryland’s first financial penalty for underage violations. It won’t be the last: Hollywood Casino in Perryville will soon pay $10,000 for two such episodes, Maryland Lottery Director Stephen Martino said.

After months of negotiating with casino operators to fix the problem — statewide, there were 30 known underage violations in 2012 — it was time to start cracking down “by exercising our fine authority under the law,” Martino said. The state can impose a maximum fine of $5,000 per incident. Technically, the $20,000 penalty Maryland Live has agreed to pay for the four incidents is not a fine, Martino said, “but it is a difference without distinction.”

“We all recognize that it happened, and we’re going to continue to work towards zero tolerance,” said Joe Weinberg, managing partner for Maryland Live’s owner, Cordish Cos. “We’re proud of our record. We have about 9 million people a year who go through Maryland Live, and on a per capita basis, we have one of the lowest rates of underage [violators] on a national scope. But we don’t want any underage in the facility.”

Not all violations are equal, Martino said. In 2012, they ranged from a couple playing slots on Christmas in Perryville with their 11-month-old in tow to a 20-year-old with an outstanding warrant using a fake ID to get into the Casino at Ocean Downs.

Of greatest concern, Martino said: “Underage people who are clearly trying to get on the floor to gamble.” Keeping them out is a pillar of the state’s responsible gambling efforts, Martino said.

The crackdown on casino operators has brought renewed attention to Maryland’s policy for punishing underage violators, which is: It doesn’t.

Bills that would have established civil fines for anyone younger than 21 who sneaks in to play slots or table games in Maryland have died in House and Senate committees during the past two General Assembly sessions.

The Senate version would have imposed a fine of up to $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for subsequent violations. The House bill would have imposed a maximum fine of $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 after that.

See previous stories in an occasional series exploring the changing casino industry and gambling culture in Maryland.

“I don’t think people were against the fundamental thrust of the bill — that people under 21 shouldn’t be there — but when you got down to the nitty-gritty, there were too many unanswered questions, and it was too much to deal with in the time we had,” said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which had jurisdiction over the legislation.

Chief among the concerns this year, Kasemeyer said, was who would be responsible for detaining violators until police arrived. Some Maryland casinos have off-duty police that help provide security, while others do not. Most of the security personnel inside the casinos do not have the power to issue civil citations, Kasemeyer said. There was also some confusion among senators, he said, about what might happen to minors who visit restaurants and other casino amenities where they are allowed but then accidentally find themselves on the gambling floor.

Kasemeyer’s committee voted down this year’s legislation 12 to 1. After the bill was defeated by the Senate committee, the House version was withdrawn by its sponsor, Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery).

Multiple states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Missouri, have statutes in place to penalize underage casino gamblers. Casino operators and state regulators covet similar legislation in Maryland.

“We think there should be some onus on the ones who violate the laws,” said Karen Bailey, vice president for public affairs for Penn National, which owns Hollywood Casino Perryville. “We can’t fight this battle alone. If there is no penalty for the minor trying to get onto the casino floor, they are going to continue to try. If they know they’re going to be fined or are going to have a misdemeanor on their record . . . maybe they’ll find better uses of their time.”

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), whose district includes Maryland Live, said he is hopeful that his colleagues will take another look at the legislation when lawmakers return in January and pass something that holds minors as well as casinos responsible for underage gambling.

“Without any disincentive, we’re going to continue to see this happen,” said Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Gaming Oversight. “It has not become a huge problem, but to me, any case is concerning. And with two more casinos slated to open, in Prince George’s and Baltimore, it’s something we need to be on top of.”

In the first eight months of this year, there were 33 violations statewide — 18 of them at Maryland Live. Some of the offenders never had their IDs checked. One was an infant whose mother “was ‘waved in’ even though she was breast feeding at the time,” according to a state compliance report.

But others worked hard to gain entry to Maryland Live: The 20-year-old with a doctored ID, the young woman who ducked under a security stanchion, the young man who jumped over the wall separating Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace from a bank of slots, the 19-year-old who tried on consecutive days to enter the casino with what the state called “questionable identification.”

“I want to be clear: It’s our responsibility to keep underage out of the facility, and our people are trained very well on these issues,” said Weinberg, the casino executive. “But we could use the help of there being a legal ramification to underage trying to get in. There has to be a downside for someone who violates the law.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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