Big profits a sure bet for casinos

They don’t have one arm anymore, but casino-like slot machines still make out like bandits.

The video machines at corner stores in Athens and throughout Georgia illegally drain thousands of dollars from gamblers every day, authorities say.

Electronic slots with names like “Play to Win” and “Queen Bee” rake in so much money that each time authorities shut down one illegal casino, two more seem to pop up.

“It’s a very lucrative enterprise,” said Athens-Clarke police Lt. Mike Hunsinger, who helps coordinate raids on illegal casinos in Clarke and neighboring counties.

“These machines don’t take quarters to play ‘PacMan,’ ” he said. “They take $20 and $50 bills – for amusement purposes?”

It always has been illegal in Georgia to make cash payouts to people who play arcade-type games, including those that simulate slot machines and poker games. The law allows winners to get free replays and merchandise valued at $5 or less for a single play.

But Hunsinger has been raiding illegal gambling operations since 2001, when he was a vice squad sergeant.

That’s the year after South Carolina banned video gambling machines and casino operators hauled thousands of the machines across the border to Georgia.

Hunsinger now is commander of the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force, which has spearheaded gambling raids at dozens of business this past year alone. It’s not a victimless crime.

“We are regularly contacted by individuals who tell us they or a family member have a gambling addiction and they are losing all their money on these machines,” he said.

After authorities seized 18 gambling machines and arrested four people in April, an anonymous person wrote to the Banner-Herald praising the busts and hoping that authorities would do more.

“I am addicted to the video poker gambling. I have lost thousands of dollars playing at different stores,” the gambler wrote. “I lost my job a few months back, but I am addicted to them.”

The tipster named seven stores that are purported fronts for illegal casinos and give out jackpots of more than $3,000. The gambler claimed to have won cash at each location on a single day in May.

Two of the stores had video gambling machines in plain sight Friday, a third had games in a back room and clerks at two others claimed they had no video games in their stores.

The machines accept bills in denominations from $1 to $20, but clerks at all three stores said players redeem winnings for gas or merchandise, not cash.

Chema Sajad never paid out cash when he had gambling machines at the Fast Trac convenience store he owns on Prince Avenue, and he got rid of the machines four months ago because “they were too much trouble,” he said.

Most recently, drug task force members teamed up with Madison County sheriff’s deputies and IRS agents July 14 to dismantle a ring that placed 36 gambling machines with three Athens businesses, including a bakery and produce store.

Authorities searched the homes of machine owners in Athens and Colbert and seized vehicles, cash, firearms, drugs and reams of documents related to illegal gambling, police said.

Officials have not yet charged anyone, but they say the gambling operation was run by Mexican nationals. In the past, police have busted illegal casinos run by people from Pakistan and other countries, raising concerns that profits might be going overseas to fund terrorist organizations or drug cartels.

“We don’t have the time or resources to investigate the end of the money trail, but if the money’s going back to source countries it leads one to believe that it’s possible terrorism or drug trafficking could be involved,” Hunsinger said.

“Because this is such a cash-centered enterprise, it’s ideal for laundering money,” he said.

A year after South Carolina banned video gambling machines in 2000, the Georgia legislature followed suit – banning the machines outright, whether players won cash or prizes – as the machines flooded into Hartwell and other border towns.

But a Superior Court judge in Atlanta in 2002 overturned the ban when he issued a permanent injunction that declared the gambling law “arbitrary, over-broad and over-inclusive” because it criminalized a game even when it was only for amusement.

Another challenge to the state’s gambling laws came last month, when state Supreme Court justices heard arguments from attorneys on what makes a video game an illegal gambling machine.

The case stems from a 2003 raid in Cobb County where police seized 13 machines, and the outcome could affect video gambling cases across the state, including some that have been pending in Clarke County Superior Court since 2007.

An attorney representing a pair of amusement game distributors argued that the law allows players to accumulate points on machines from repeated games, redeeming the total points for prizes as high as $500.

“You can keep replaying for prizes, so long as the number of $5 prizes is not more than $5 per single play,” argued attorney Michael Bowers, a former state attorney general. “That’s the key. That’s what the statute says.”

Justice Harold Melton read the law differently.

“I see where a player can play the game, play all day, but at the end of the day where is the authorization to receive something greater than $5 if there was only $1 that started it?” Melton asked.

Justices typically hand down a ruling three to four months after hearing arguments.