High stakes

June 17, 2013 

What an image. The speaker of the state House of North Carolina, Thom Tillis, is welcomed to a Raleigh office by McGuireWoods Consulting, the lobbying arm of a large law firm, McGuireWoods. The speaker meets with various clients of the firm, including apparently one from the sweepstakes industry, which is outlawed in North Carolina but has been battling to maintain its business.

A McGuireWoods lobbyist told The News & Observer that the idea was for the clients to talk to Tillis about issues, and that they also could make campaign contributions.

It seems they were happy to do so. Tillis, a likely candidate for the U.S. Senate next year, received not long after the May 10, 2012 meeting, on May 16, in fact, more than $60,000 from 19 individuals.

What an incredible coincidence!

The sweepstakes industry has been particularly generous to Tillis, Gov. Pat McCrory and Sen. Phil Berger, president pro-tem of the upper chamber. Tillis has gotten $127,000 from those connected to the industry since 2010, with the governor and the senator running a little behind. A total of more than $700,000 in campaign contributions from the industry’s friends have gone to state candidates since early 2010.

It’s big money, but the industry is a high-profit one. It has come under fire recently because racketeering and money laundering charges have been filed against Chase Burns, an Oklahoma provider of gaming software. Burns, along with 50 others, has been charged in connection with a scheme wherein authorities said he and others claimed to be running a charitable veterans organization in Florida but were in fact getting about $90 million in proceeds from the scheme.

Burns and his wife, Kristin, gave more than $240,000 to more than 70 candidates in both parties in North Carolina as well as House and Senate Republican committees. Many of his contributions came through lobbyists from the law firm Moore & Van Allen in Charlotte, the firm where Gov. McCrory worked until just before his inauguration.

The industry battles on, fighting to preserve “sweepstakes parlors” which it claims are legal despite legislation on the books in North Carolina banning gaming parlors.

Basically, customers go in a parlor, and buy time on a computer or time on a phone card, and as a side benefit, they get a certain number of clicks on a computer screen or electronic device. That device is preset as to whether someone wins or loses with a click. It is purely a game of chance. Winners can still win cash, which can be paid above the table. The operators claim their games are no different than the sweepstakes cards popular at some hamburger joints.

State officials beg to differ, saying such games of chance are gambling, and against the law. North Carolina lawmakers have tried for years to put together a foolproof ban, but the industry comes equipped with an army of lawyers looking for loopholes. So the battle goes on.

Clearly, the industry has faith in its ability to shape the law now or later, hence its investment in the careers of politicians who might be in a position to help. Neither Tillis nor McCrory nor Berger voices support for the sweepstakes industry and they’ve all at times indicated they are among its critics. All previously said they’d send Burns’ contributions to charity.

But the determination of a supposedly outlawed industry to influence lawmakers is disquieting. Law enforcement is virtually unanimous in its support for a ban on these games, believing they indulge gambling addictions and illegal under-the-table payoffs. Lawmakers should be meeting with those who want to stop this industry, rather than those who would like to preserve it.

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