A good AP follow-up on North Carolina’s ‘sweepstakes’ story

In the face of crackdowns, an industry with deep pockets refuses to go away

In his post yesterday about what North Carolina reporters can learn from their South Carolina colleagues about covering the video gambling “sweepstakes” industry, Corey Hutchins flagged a solid article by AP writers Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss about the industry’s campaign contributions to politicians across the Tar Heel State.

The AP team is staying on the story. Late yesterday, Biesecker, Weiss, and an AP colleague were out with another article that offers a good look at the “sweepstakes” state of play in North Carolina.

The new AP piece details how—despite a 2010 state ban on computer gambling parlors, and a recent state Supreme Court ruling upholding the prohibition—hundreds of “sweepstakes cafes” remain open. With millions of dollars at stake, the gambling machines’ owners tweak their software and seek loopholes in the law, even as they produce reports about the industry’s economic benefits and lobby for full legal status.

And the article notes that while local law enforcement in North Carolina is cracking down in the wake of the recent court ruling, state authorities are generally biding their time:

More than three months after the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld lawmakers’ most recent attempt to ban the sweepstakes, there has been no visible statewide law enforcement effort to put the multimillion dollar industry out of business.

The Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement has the explicit responsibility to root out illegal gambling.

Public Safety Secretary Kieran Shanahan, who supervises the department, said Thursday that investigators are studying the issue.

“We have been conferring with our law enforcement partners and prosecutors statewide on how to best monitor and enforce the sweepstakes law,” Shanahan said. “We also have been monitoring the state of the law and how the legislature will respond to the operators who keep changing their configurations citing that they are in conformance.”
Local enforcement can be effective, a top state official tells the AP. But at the same time, he noted how the industry’s deep pockets have allowed it to circumvent law enforcement in the past:
Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose agency successfully defended the state ban before the Supreme Court, predicted more local authorities will follow suit as North Carolina prosecutors succeed in winning convictions against those charged.

“For years this industry has tried every trick in the book to get around the laws the legislature has passed to shut them down,” Cooper said. “We have fought them in court at every turn, and will continue to do so. … These cases are not as easy to tackle as you might imagine. This is a big-money industry and they spend a lot of effort trying to get around every legal angle.”

For more on the ongoing sweepstakes battle in North Carolina, see the full AP piece here. And for journalistic insights gleaned from covering a similar fight across the state line, check out Hutchins’s post here.

The debate over gambling is obviously informed by competing arguments about economic development and moral and religious views. But there’s a rich story here to be told and told again about lawmaking, lobbying, and law enforcement—and how political money affects all of those things. Here’s hoping that the folks at the AP, and other accountability-minded reporters in the state, stay on that story to the end.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: ,