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.