Marland Deen, president of the Charles County commissioners charged with violating state gambling laws, sat in his first floor office at the courthouse here, Chesapeake crab and Maryland flag pins planted firmly on his lapel. "The state's attorney's kind of a loquacious young fellow and likes to see his name in print," he said about his arrest.
Upstairs, State's Attorney Stephen J. Braun, 34, found Deen's comment, with its suggestion of political opportunism, ironic. "Many are saying that I'm committing political suicide and then they turn around and say I'm doing it for political reasons," he said. "Pure and simple, that's not true."
But not everything is pure and simple in this county where Braun, a Jaycee Young Marylander of the Year, is prosecuting Deen, a Kiwanis Man of the Year.
Deen, 50, a first-term Democratic commissioner, as well as his brother, a deputy sheriff and the brother of a state delegate were among 17 persons charged last week in connection with illegal cash payoffs from electronic video poker games. It is the latest development in a statewide crackdown on illegal gambling that has roiled communities from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.
Gambling in many parts of Maryland "is so ingrained, it's unbelieveable," said Gerald C. Ruter, a state deputy special prosecutor who is working with Braun on the Charles County case.
In Southern Maryland, where gambling -- legal and otherwise -- is a tradition, the latest charges represented the long-awaited outcome of a 10-month investigation that included undercover work by two sheriff's deputies and grand jury testimony by more than 70 witnesses. At least one suicide is attributed to the probe, which has caused at least as much controversy as the alleged crimes themselves.
As the charges were filed last week, Braun issued a statement suggesting that some persons had committed perjury before the grand jury and indicating that other charges may be forthcoming. (One person has already been charged with asking a witness to lie to the grand jury panel.) But Ruter said he expects no additional public officials to be charged.
Court papers allege that illegal video poker games were going on in establishments from Little Reno -- on a pier at Colonial Beach, Va., but over the Potomac and thus inside Maryland -- to Deen's Little Store, which sells liquor, groceries and gas next to the Elks Lodge in Waldorf.
Several of those accused were in the gambling business during the days of legalized slots, from 1949 to 1968, years when the Charles County portion of U.S. Rte. 301 was described in pulp magazines as a tawdry sin strip that drew crowds from up and down the East Coast.
Slots, then, were the mainstay of the local economy, keeping taxes low and business profits high. The economy plummeted when slots were outlawed but has since rebounded with the development of suburban shopping centers and subdivisions.
Now, those charged with violating the gambling statutes include pillars of the community such as Deen and John L. Sprague, brother of Del. Michael J. Sprague (D) and recently a director of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce.
"Marland Deen is an outstanding member of the community and continues to be," said Tom Saxton, a druggist and immediate past president of Deen's Elks post. "He's been in every service organization and for the underdog always. These are all good people, outstanding people helping the community. They are certainly not robbing the community in any way, shape or form."
Local reaction here is not unlike that heard elsewhere where gambling crackdowns have occurred in Maryland:
A three-year old Washington County gambling controversy erupted anew last week over whether betting in taverns is any less legal than gambling at VFWs and Legion halls, which donate to charity. Eastern Shore service clubs are still stinging over state police raids Sept. 30 in which 160 slot machines were seized, many of them believed to have come years ago from Southern Maryland.
In this latest form of gambling, the most commonly found machine is called Draw 80-Poker, according to Braun. A customer puts in 25 cents, is dealt five cards and has an opportunity to discard and take new cards to make up a poker hand. Different hands result in the customer winning a different number of points. Generally, when a customer has 40 or more points, he can cash them in for a payoff.
Since the charges in Charles County are misdemeanors, guilt or innocence is likely to be decided by judges. Finding local jurors willing to convict in these cases, should such a step be necessary, will not be easy, Ruter acknowledged.
With Braun, the local state's attorney, directing the prosecution, many politicians and business leaders have been publicly circumspect.
"I have no comment at all," said Loretta Nimmerichter, a Republican commissioner who is not usually at a loss for words.
Charles County Sheriff David Fuller, who also owns and operates a videotape cassette and television store here, has said that gambling is unstoppable and that there are more serious crimes to prosecute. Last week, however, he declined any comment "about any type of gambling, whatsoever."
Perhaps the most commonly held view around this county seat came last week in signed editorials in the two local papers. The prosecutions, the papers said, are a waste of time and money, and an example of misplaced priorities. "With the results we've had so far," said the La Plata Times Crescent, "it's hard to justify such a time-consuming and costly investigation process, particularly in a state that runs its own lottery."
Braun, a former Floridian who has also prosecuted pornography and prostitution in his adopted county, said the newspaper had raised a "legitimate question" that would be answered in time. As for the lottery comparison, also raised on the Eastern Shore, Braun said, "The distinction for me as a prosecutor is the lottery is legal and generates a great amount allegedly for the public good."
Braun said the "silent majority" of Charles Countians supports his stance, and he pointed in particular to new arrivals largely responsible for a 53 percent jump in county population in the 1970s, to 72,751 in the last census. The newcomers live mainly in St. Charles, a planned "new town" near Waldorf at the county's northern end. Many commute to Washington for work and, it is said, have little interest in or knowledge of local traditions.
But even among the newcomers, views are mixed.
"They shouldn't have it. It's illegal," said Martha Leizear, who came to Charles seven years ago from Bowie in Prince George's County and now owns a fabric shop in a St. Charles' Smallwood Village Center. But, she shrugged, "the businessman is just out there making a living."
That's the way Roger D. Baldwin saw it. At Baldwin's 76 Auto-Truck Plaza just this side of the Route 301 Potomac River bridge, the five video poker games seized this spring were "just another profit center," he said last week. In return for his cooperation, Baldwin, 40, received probation before judgment after pleading guilty to one gambling count Oct. 9.
"I'm not making a moral judgment whether gambling is right or wrong," Baldwin said. "It was just . . . like the lottery business and the truck scales . . . . "
"Long before I came here, gambling was the economy," he continued. "When it died, 301 became a ghost road. You can see the remnants, the old businesses falling down. When Interstate 95 opened up, it made it worse. Traffic's business. Without traffic, you don't have no business."
But business goes on at Baldwin's truck stop without electronic video poker to draw the customers. Every Thursday, for 100 minutes or so, Baldwin reserves the Maryland Lotto machine for a Richmond man who crosses the river to place bets of up to $1,500 for himself and for friends.
The other day, the man played $1,011 -- on which Baldwin made a 2 percent commission -- and took back $75 in winnings, all of it legal.