The Progress Club in Rockville, on the eve of its trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court on charges of operating a gambling place, escalated its public relations campaign yesterday, holding its second news conference in a week to defend its image.
Herman Eig, a 73-year-old retired developer and 43-year club member who has emerged recently as its spokesman, charged State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner and Rockville Police Chief Jared Stout with unfairly "trying to paint" club members as "arch criminals."
After a 5 1/2-month undercover investigation, Rockville police arrested 21 members, including Eig, and seized $27,700 in a late-night raid June 5. Charges of illegal gambling against all but one of those arrested were dropped after the men, most of them elderly, completed four to 11 hours of community service.
The club goes on trial tomorrow for operating an illegal gambling establishment. Club members maintain that their card games were harmless and that they were unfairly singled out for prosecution. But Sonner and Stout contend that the club was a business organized for the primary purpose of illegal gambling.
At the upcoming trial, jurors will be asked to decide only whether there was illegal gambling at the Progress Club from January through June, as prosecutors and police allege.
"It's just a routine gambling case, that's all it is," Sonner said yesterday. "We are interested in prosecuting businesses that go into gambling, and that's what they're doing."
No precedents will be set by the case, and the future of card games in Maryland does not hinge on the outcome of the Progress Club trial, Sonner said.
Still, club members are fighting to clear their reputations and are hoping to be able to play cards again once the trial is over. Over the weekend, club members assembled at busy shopping malls along Rockville Pike to distribute to shoppers and passers-by and place on car windshields colorful flyers disputing charges of wrongdoing.
Eig said 18,000 flyers were distributed in a campaign to "paper the town" with the Progress Club's side of the story.