The state Supreme Court abolished video poker in South Carolina in 1999, but conflicting rulings by magistrate judges left the legal status of similar gambling operations unclear—an ambiguity that the new law seeks to eliminate.
Perhaps more than any other journalist in the state, Scoppe—a recipient of the Hal Hovey-Peter Harkness Award bestowed by Governing magazine for outstanding coverage of state and local government—chronicled video poker’s heyday, its abolition, and its attempted return in recent years as the sweepstakes industry. So I asked Scoppe what advice she would give reporters covering the sweepstakes battle in North Carolina.
Instead, she told me over email what the South Carolina press corps failed to do until too late:
We didn’t pay close enough attention to the industry as it was proliferating. In fact, we slept through it, largely because it gained its foothold in small towns and in the sorts of places that reporters and editors and, frankly, the people reporters and editors hang out with, don’t frequent. By the time we noticed how big it had gotten, it was a monster. Perhaps if we had raised the alarm sooner, it would have been easier to stop.
We didn’t pay attention to the court fights that were going on. If we had, we would have seen that the industry was abusing our legal system in order to buy time to keep printing money. If we had documented this pattern earlier, it might have shaken up the Legislature.
We didn’t examine the money or hold lawmakers accountable. The House tried for years to shut down the industry; the Senate refused. No one examined the campaign donations to the senators who were blocking the legislation and outed those senators’ motives.
We saw this as a moral fight, waged largely by right-wing evangelicals who just don’t want to let anyone have any fun, rather than recognizing it for what it was: a fight for the heart and soul of our government. A battle against political corruption.
We fell into the trap of “I already said that.” Politicians repeat their messages over and over. We say it once and think we’re done. Whether it’s opinion or factual information, people need to hear it over and over before it sinks in. They particularly need to hear it over and over when people on the other side are dismissing it over and over.
As that Tuesday story by the AP’s Biesecker and Weiss suggests, reporters in North Carolina are jumping on the follow-the-money angle—at least, the part of the money trail that is disclosed publicly. But they should also be checking the back doors. In both South Carolina and North Carolina, the industry’s direct and undisclosed ties to local politicians and law enforcement have led to state and federal investigations of public corruption. Some led to prison sentences; others are still ongoing.
And the stories offer nothing if not color. In 2008, David Forbes and Jason Sandford wrote a 2008 story for the Asheville, NC-based alt-weekly Mountain Xpress about an illicit video-poker operation spanning the state line that depended on payoffs to store owners and local law enforcement:
It was easy money, and there was plenty of it: Enough, it seemed, for everyone. But nobody wanted to stop when North Carolina began restricting the operation of the gambling machines and eventually banned them outright. Federal agents took notice, however. Working the edges of the conspiracy, the feds started marking key players and amassing their evidence. Raids on stores and homes revealed the extent of the bribery-and-public-corruption scandal.
Gradually, the personalities involved began to emerge: a gruff sheriff with a one-eyed parrot; a Greek immigrant living the American dream; a dull deputy who loved the trappings of law enforcement; a slick salesman with a brash attitude. And details came to light that put the case in the realm of pulp fiction: bricks of cash wrapped in foil and stashed in ceilings; videos recording backroom deals; code names such as “Judge” and “J”; and bribes handed over in church parking lots.
That “gruff sheriff”? He went to prison for 15 years on corruption and extortion charges.