VIDEO GAMBLING didn’t grow so large and powerful that it nearly took over our government simply because our laws were inadequate. Our political culture nurtured it.
It moved so quietly from the backrooms of shady bars and convenience stores to the front of those businesses that, except for a handful of anti-gambling stalwarts, the political class barely noticed it. The Revenue Department, then charged with licensing gambling machines, did its best to accommodate it. When efforts were undertaken to make it obey our laws, judges gave it the benefit of the doubt.
The media ignored it, and the public at large remained largely oblivious to it, which allowed the poker barons to insinuate themselves even deeper into our political culture, by handing out generous campaign donations and perhaps even investment opportunities that politicians didn’t have to worry about explaining.
That’s what makes recent events in Lexington County so encouraging.
When a vigilante decided to ensnare Lexington Town Councilman Danny Frazier with his own words, the media took notice. And the political establishment freaked when The Free Times and WIS exposed Mr. Frazier’s lurid descriptions of the re-emergent industry’s lawlessness, as he walked what he thought was a would-be investor through the process of setting up a business that he boasted he could use his connections to protect from prosecution.
Mr. Frazier claimed he had exaggerated his power, but faced with the implication that West Columbia police were among those he had convinced to look the other way, the West Columbia City Council rushed through a moratorium on new “sweepstakes” businesses, as the gambling operations are calling themselves. The city also announced it would no longer pay him to be an “advisor.”
The Lexington Town Council, worried about the town’s image, summoned Mr. Frazier to a closed-door meeting (of questionable legality) and then a public hearing, where first voters and then his colleagues called on him to resign. (He declined.)
Members of the Lexington County Council insisted that they had no power over gambling operations, since they don’t require business licenses. But they sent police the names of the ones that have opened in the county, and talk surfaced of instituting a business-license requirement.
And Lexington Sheriff James Metts, who not only had Mr. Frazier on his payroll but also had accepted at least $5,500 in donations from gambling operators, had to backtrack twice. After The State’s Noelle Phillips sent him copies of magistrates’ orders declaring some of his donors’ machines contraband, he reversed his initial refusal and returned the money. And after saying he was merely “looking into” the reports about Mr. Frazier, he put his part-time community liaison on leave without pay pending a SLED investigation he requested.
About the only one who hasn’t been backtracking is Sen. Jake Knotts, who declared that he wouldn’t return campaign donations from the owners of illegal gambling machines because they also have business interests that are legal. That’s sort of like saying it’s OK to do business with the Mafia if it’s involved in some legitimate businesses, but what do you expect? Mr. Knotts was a vocal defender of the old iteration of video gambling and is an unabashed advocate of legalized gambling.
Still, the fact that so many other politicians have felt the need to move so quickly to distance themselves suggests that they know they won’t be able to conceal any ties to the industry this time and that their constituents won’t find such ties palatable.
It’ll take a lot more than that, but an engaged and disapproving public and alert media are essential if we are to have any hope of quashing the re-emergence of the gambling scourge.