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Statehouse beat: Lottery Commission muddies the water even more

Last week, I noted how the Lottery Commission is in a tough spot in cracking down on tour bus day trips to The Greenbrier casino, since the commission must both regulate and promote state-sanctioned gambling.

Turns out, the commission was more complicit than originally thought in allowing Jim Justice and company to break the state historic hotel gaming law (or at least bend it beyond recognition).

The law (25-25-1 et. al.) and legislative rules are clear that the casino is to be an amenity for hotel guests, not a gambling outlet for day-trippers.

In fact, the law specifically states: "It is expressively not the intent of the Legislature to promote gaming" but to provide "a resort hotel amenity which is increasingly important to many actual and potential resort hotel patrons."

Both the law and legislative rule are clear that access to the casino is restricted to:

1. Registered overnight guests of the hotel.

2. Registered participants at a convention or event being held at the hotel.

3. Members of homeowners or facility associations that entitle members to "substantial privileges at the hotel," and those members' overnight guests.

(For those not intimately familiar with the legislative process, when the Legislature passes a law, the affected agency has to write long, detailed rules for how that law will be implemented -- rules that have to be approved by the Legislature during its next regular session.

The legislative rules for The Greenbrier casino run 132 pages and go into great detail on things like specifications for playing cards and dice, and even the colors of betting chips by denomination. (If anyone ever gives you a gray Greenbrier casino chip, don't throw it away. It's worth $5,000 ...)

While neither the law nor the legislative rule defines event, the legislative intent is clear that it is to be the equivalent of a convention, under circumstances where attendance at said convention or event is so large that a majority of rooms at the hotel are booked.

Unfortunately, the Lottery Commission itself muddied the water when during its May 19, 2011, meeting in Charles Town, it adopted Policy Statement 11-02/GB.

The policy -- which, of course, does not carry the weight of law -- was apparently prompted by near-daily inquiries from on-site Lottery staff to the director's office as to whether particular groups requesting casino access constituted events under the law.

Oddly, instead of defining "event," as we anticipate the Lottery Commission will do Nov. 27, the policy statement instead cites three examples of what is not an event.

The statement says it is not an event if the visit is strictly confined to the casino, and involves no other hotel or resort activities. It is also not an event if there is no fee or payment to the hotel, or if that fee is nominal, defined in the statement as less than $20.

That's very peculiar, as if the Lottery was going out of its way to create loopholes for The Greenbrier.

It's as if casino management asked for clarification about the legal age to gamble in the state, and instead of being advised that patrons must be 21 or older, were given a list of indicators that a person is not of legal age, for instance, if they are enrolled in high school, if they have a graduated driver's license, or if they cannot register to vote.

Then, if a 19- or 20-year-old were in the casino, management could say, hey, he didn't fall under any of the stated criteria for being underage. Likewise, the convoluted policy statement currently gives casino management the plausible deniability to say, hey, we didn't know casino day trips were not events under the law.

***

I talked to a former casino employee prior to the Lottery Commission meeting Tuesday, and he suggested that regardless of whatever action the Lottery took, The Greenbrier would continue busing gamblers in.

Indeed, a day after The Greenbrier's attorney assured commissioners that a cease-and-desist was in place, the buses were still rolling into the casino.

Turns out, Greenbrier had not stopped the casino day trips -- but had instructed tour companies to stop advertising them as gambling trips.

In fact, Justice was quoted in the Beckley paper suggesting that the third-party advertising was the gaming law violation that drew the Lottery Commission's scrutiny.

Which is another smoke screen. Unlike Limited Video Lottery, where licensees are strictly prohibited from advertising, nothing in the historic hotel gaming law prohibits advertising or promoting the casino.

Currently, there's a speak-easy atmosphere in place, at least at Abbott Trailways of Roanoke, Va., the biggest operator of the casino day trips. They've pulled advertising promoting the tours as gambling trips, but callers who inquire about the trips are assured casino access is still provided.

(On the other hand, I'm not sure that bus company ads for "Greenbrier buffet lunch day trips" will generate the same amount of interest as "Greenbrier casino day trips." Or, changing their slogan for The Greenbrier day trips from "We drive, you play," to "We drive, you eat ...")

The violation is not advertising the casino day trips. The violation is in claiming the gambling excursions are events under the state Lottery law.

***

Finally, even after partaking of the entrée, I'm still not sure if the Oct. 23 daily special listed on the Capitol Food Court's web page was a typo or not: "Spaghetti with mean sauce."

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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