Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 05/11/10

By Tom Sherwood
|  Wednesday, May 11, 2011  |  Updated 12:55 AM EDT
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D.C.'s Gamble on Web Gambling

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Some want to make sure D.C.'s online gaming doesn't start without some oversight.

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Marie Drissel may be best known to District citizens as one of a handful of people who helped persuade Tony Williams to run for mayor in 1998.

She's been involved in any number of other issues before and since, including scrutiny of the city's troubled property assessment appeals process.

But now, she has a new project. She wants to stop the city's rushed entry into online gambling. And she fears you, dear readers, probably don't know anything about it.

"This is the biggest change in the landscape of the D.C. government in 40 years," she told the Notebook on Monday. "The biggest challenge in 40 years."

There have been scattered news reports. The Washington Post has published one strongly worded editorial about the undertaking.

Here are some basic details.

The D.C. Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board is preparing to launch online Texas hold’em card games this summer or fall. You'll have to carry your laptop to "hot spot" gaming centers that will be set up in bars, hotels and other high-density places where tourists and citizens gather. The system is being designed to avoid federal prohibitions on Internet gambling, so you’ll have to be located physically within the District to play. But ultimately, the goal is to expand the program so that anyone anywhere in the District may log on and gamble.

A bill creating the new online opportunity was sponsored by at-large D.C. Council member Michael Brown and then-Mayor-elect Vincent Gray. It passed as an amendment to the budget with no -- no -- public hearings. It cleared routine congressional review in early spring.

"Where's the hearing?" Drissel asked. "We need cyber cops and cyber auditors to keep track of this. What's the fiscal impact?" she continued. "Who's behind it? The public doesn’t have any idea. There isn't a computer that I know of that can’t be hacked or maneuvered."

Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans chairs the council's Committee on Finance and Revenue. He agreed this week that the idea needs more public comment. He said he'll hold hearings in early summer after the council completes the massive budget review for 2012.

Evans said he has questions, too, but has been comforted that independent Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi is supporting the new venture.

Drissel is not alone in raising the caution flag, though.

Patrick Thibodeau, a national technology reporter, is also alarmed. "Personally, I think this law will be overturned once people become aware of its full implications," he said.

Thibodeau said there's no clear understanding of how or whether neighborhood groups will weigh in. It's not clear, he said, how many "hot spot" parlors there will be.

"I'm flabbergasted, actually," he told us Monday.

Buddy Roogow, executive director of the lottery board, acknowledges the concerns raised by Drissel and Thibodeau, but said the board is taking a cautious approach.

Where will “hot spots” be? He said they’ll be targeted at commercial venues. “All potential locations will undergo, at the very least, the same rigorous (board) screening and evaluation process as ... our current Retail Agent approval process,” he wrote.

Roogow said there will be “stringent internal and operational controls, and system security features to ensure the games’ integrity and fairness to players.”

The director said the lottery board and Intralot -- the licensed operator of all D.C. lottery games -- also will hire independent auditors.

Why weren't there any council hearings? "Any decision to hold public hearings or receive public input is within the purview of the District Council," Roogow wrote.

And maybe that’s where the trouble lies.

This could mean a dramatic expansion of gambling in the District. There were no public hearings. No public discussions have been held about security, keeping juveniles or gambling addicts out of the system, or the impact of "hot spots" on neighborhoods. What if some bars and restaurants want to become "hot spots" to avoid losing a competitive advantage?

Both Drissel and Thibodeau feel strongly that too many questions have been left unanswered. Actually, they said, the questions haven't even been asked.

Drissel said you can reach her at marie.drissel@verizon.net. Thibodeau can be reached at dcblogs@gmail.com.

You might say Thibodeau and Drissel are doubling down to stop the new gambling.

And you can place your bets on whether they’ll succeed.

• Where was Gray?

The pile of suspicious letters containing unknown white powders rattled the D.C. school system last Thursday. By mid-afternoon, more than 30 schools had reported receiving the letters. Emergency hazmat personnel and police responded aggressively. Who knew what was really going on? Parents were scared.

But it's still not clear why Mayor Gray took more than four hours to make a public appearance or statement on the troubling incident. The leader of the city remained in his offices consulting with authorities but apparently felt no need to make a public comment.

More than a few aides to the mayor said it's an unfortunate example of how Gray does not yet seize the executive mantel of his office. He still responds as if he were chairman of the council, with time to reflect and consult and collaborate before acting.

Radio, television, blogs, Twitter, emails and who knows what else were aflame with information and reports. The mayor was nowhere in the mix. One person emailed the Notebook asking, "Is the mayor even in town?"

Well, the mayor is supposed to act. Gray was right to let law enforcement take the lead on the investigation -- no grandstanding was needed. But why didn’t the mayor simply appear in public to reassure everyone that the public safety people were doing their jobs, and, by the way, that he was doing his? It would have been a simple thing for the city's leader to do.

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