Keep pressure on ‘sweepstakes' operators

The video gambling industry didn't grow into a $3 billion-a-year behemoth that was able to take out a governor and nearly take over our government because our laws allowed its lawlessness. It grew uncontrolled because it was able to intimidate our police and prosecutors and regulators and, when that didn't work, send out its stable of high-powered lawyers to play their best dazzle-and-delay games in our courts.

Once the cases finally made it through all the delays, to either the state Supreme Court or a federal district judge, the industry always lost. Always. But the delays bought it time, which it used to print more money (not a difficult task for a cash-only business selling a highly addictive product), which it in turn used to underwrite political campaigns and employ a stable of high-powered lobbyists whose job was to convince the Legislature to water down the laws — or at least not strengthen them.

Indeed, the industry allowed the Legislature to pass a law that contained the seeds of its destruction only because the legislation also contained its only hope of survival, after the courts finally ordered it to obey the law it had ignored for years.

It's breathtaking to imagine how many lives might not have been ruined, how many state resources might not have been squandered, how many honest politicians might not have been unseated for refusing to bow to the video poker barons … if only our law had been enforced from the start.

It is against this backdrop that we welcome last week's police raids on the latest iteration of the video gambling industry — the Internet sweepstakes cafes that have sprung up like weeds, hawking what they claim are phone cards and Internet service, which are used for one purpose: to facilitate gambling.

Attorney General Alan Wilson and SLED Chief Mark Keel had no doubt that the sweepstakes operations were illegal, but the fledgling industry had made it clear that it would to be just as aggressive as its predecessor in pursuing the most ridiculous legal theories — and dazzling lower-level judges into granting it reprieves. So they asked the Legislature to pass a law to remove any doubt that the new gambling devices were illegal, and after the best friends of the old gambling industry blocked action on that legislation, Mr. Keel sent his agents to school to learn how to make an air-tight case. And last week, with the help of the attorney general's office and the Richland and Lexington county sheriff's departments, they shut down one location in each county.

The high-profile raids — complete with a magistrate who went to one site to see for himself how the machines operated before they were disconnected from the server and transformed into ordinary computers — should send a message to other operators that their reprieve is over. We hope that will convince some of them to just go away. But of course it won't scare all the operators, who will keep operating, and keep trying to tie up our courts, trying to buy time to print more money.

What we need is for our Legislature to wipe away the silly defense the industry has concocted, by passing a law that simply says that a provision that allows McDonald's and other legitimate businesses to offer “sweepstakes” games doesn't legalize the gambling operations that another part of our law makes illegal. But the Legislature can't act until at least January — and then only if the “sweepstakes” operators can't stop it.

So what we need now is for our police and prosecutors to keep up the heat, and for our courts to deal quickly with this matter, to not tolerate the delay games, and to move this matter up to the Supreme Court post-haste. If the “sweepstakes” operators are so confident that the law is on their side, they should want a quick resolution as well.