Gamblers and Crime in Oklahoma

August 11, 2009

The State of Oklahoma sets aside money from gambling revenues for problem gamblers to get help.  But little of that money is being used.  About one-third of it is unused.  Advocates say it is because of lack of public awareness.

Other states, including Louisiana, are required to place the “gambling help line” on billboards.  “The roadsides are inundated with cassino billboards.  And you know how many  billboards we have in Oklahoma with the gambling help line number? – not one,” said Willey Harwell, executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

This is a statewide organization that contracts with the Department of Mental Health and Substances Abuse Services to maintain the 24-hour gambling help line.  It also offers community education and promotes counseling services.  The state of Oklahoma spent $143,000 in 2008 to promote awareness about gambling addiction and treatment.  By law in Oklahoma, casinos, all 110 of them, must have the information available for treatment.

Only 245 people sought help with their gambling last fiscal year.  They went to one of the 12 certified gambling treatment providers who contract with the state.

Cindy Satterfield of Gateway to Prevention and Recovery in Shawnee believes there are many more problem gamblers than have sought help.  Hers is the only service in Pottawatomie County with certified gambling counselors.  She has only seven people in treatment now.  She has put out flyers to advertise her services but cannot compete with the casinos. In the stretch along Interstate 40 between Oklahoma City and Shawnee, there are 20 billboards advertising casinos.  There are none with the gambling help line.

Satterfield said gamblers usually do not seek help until they are in crisis.  Until then, shame keeps them away. When they do finally seek help, they are commonly more than a month behind on their mortgage, car payments and utility bills.

Criminal defense lawyers become acquainted with gamblers when they are eventually charged with a crime.  The crime stems from their trying to get back the money they have gambled away.

Embezzlement is the most common way gamblers get in over their heads.  As they continue to gamble more and more in a never-ending chase to make up their losses, these people, often over a period of years, may embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars.  They continue to have access to money, and they want to pay back what they have taken, so they continue to  dig deeper and gamble it away, embezzle and gamble forever – until they get caught.  And, of course, then they have nothing left to pay back in restitution.

Mike Mass, former Oklahoma legislator, recently admitted he had a gambling problem that led him to destruction and a federal sentence from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.  Dan Draper, former Speaker of the House in Oklahoma, also admitted having a gambling addiction that got him in trouble.

“I’m not the kind of person to lie about anything, but I would lie about gambling,” a gambling addict said.  “Gambling addicts are master manipulators,, but at some point it catches up with us, and we can’t hide it any longer,” she said. She ran up $70,000 in credit card debt and couldn’t stop.  “Its not about the money.  I’m mesmerized by the machines.”

But, as crushing as her debt is, she won’t be facing prison time.  Of course, some people in this situation, by the time they retain a criminal defense lawyer, they may feel that they deserve prison.  It’s more feeling they need to be punished.

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Wal-Mart Embezzelment Sentence too light?

August 31, 2007

It’s not too often an appellate court finds a criminal sentence too light. Usually, the appeals courts focus on technicalities of procedure and evidence, and occasionally find a sentence too harsh. But The 8th Circuit United States Court of Appeals found the sentence handed out to ex-Wal-Mart executive Thomas Coughlin too lenient.

Coughlin had gotten a sentence of home detention and probation even though Wal-Mart estimated the loss he caused them at $500,000. Coughlin pled guilty and admitted to embezzling cash, gift cards and merchandise from Wal-Mart stores. He had worked there for 28 years as a protege of founder, Sam Walton, and was the number two executive at Wal-Mart before he retired in 2005.

For his wire fraud and tax evasion charges, Coughlin was facing up to 28 years in prison and fines of $1.3 million. But the U.S. District Judge gave Coughlin only 27 months of home detention and 33 months of probation with a fine of $50,000 and $400,000 of restitution to repay Wal-Mart.

The appeals court found Coughlin’s sentence did not justify such a departure from the norm, departing downward eight levels in the sentencing guidelines. The dissenting appellate judge, however, agreed with the sentencing district judge that Coughlin suffered from extraordinary health problems, including heart failure, obesity, diabetes, and gout, which might not receive adequate treatment in prison.

The appellate decision directed the sentencing judge to give Coughlin another sentence, but the appellate decision was a split decision by a small panel of judges, so Coughlin could now seek a rehearing before the full nine-judge panel or the full Circuit Court to ask reinstatement of his original sentence.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is still trying to break two retirement contracts with Coughlin, one for $12 million and the other for $15 million. Apparently, these were not sweet enough to deter Coughlin from dipping further into the Wal-Mart honey pot.

I’m sure my clients would join me in my amazement that someone with those kind of resources would feel the need to embezzle $500,000 when he expected to receive $28 million from that same source. This light sentence also shows that justice is not always equal, which further emphasizes the need for the best criminal defense possible for people who don’t fall into the category of the ultra wealthy.