D.C.’s bad bet on Internet gambling

June 15, 2011

BETTER LATE THAN never: The D.C. Council is finally taking steps to provide some scrutiny of plans to legalize online gambling in the District. Let’s hope that this is more than a gesture to save face for the irresponsible way the council has handled this matter. There needs to be a full vetting of the plan to make the District the first jurisdiction in the nation to allow these online money games — including a review of the activities of the council member, Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who championed it.

A public hearing has been scheduled for June 29 before the council’s finance and revenue committee. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), committee chairman, had scheduled a more informal roundtable, but mounting questions about the controversial legislation prompted him to take a more rigorous look. Issues include the troubling way the measure was enacted last year; it was slipped into the city’s supplemental budget with no hearing or debate and with no apparent regard for the cautions of the city’s chief financial officer and attorney general. Not only is there uncertainty over whether federal law permits this kind of online gaming, but there are significant technical issues, factors that have caused other states to shy away from authorizing it.

As we recently reported, at the time Mr. Brown was pushing the measure he was in the employ — to the tune of more than $200,000 in 2010 — of a law firm that had interests in the issue. Mr. Brown has denied any conflict; he said that no company represented by the firm, Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, which he has since left, had business before the council that would have been affected. We argued that there was possible value in the city’s action to a firm with a vigorous gaming practice. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan dismissed those concerns as a “stretch” when recently asked his opinion on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show,”but we think that the questions demand more careful study. Mr. Brown says that he has nothing to hide, so why not voluntarily seek review from the new ethics officer hired by the attorney general?

Current plans are to roll out the online games — to be offered by the D.C. Lottery via intranet to adults in the District — for free in July, with actual wagering slated to start in September. Yet to be answered is whether this is a gamble worth taking.

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