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Las Vegas nights -- backdoor approach to legalized gambling

Casino-gambling pushers are a persistent lot. Their hopes of transforming Massachusetts into the Nevada of the East or the Atlantic City of New England have not faded, despite little encouragement from state and local officials.

They are not marking time waiting for a more favorable political climate, however. Instead they are using a backdoor approach to their potentially very profitable gambling operations. And on the surface, at least, it's all in the name of charity.

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The keys to their increasing success are so-called Las Vegas nights or parties at which blackjack, poker, and craps tables are the centers of attraction. But these gambling activities are allowed under state law only if run by nonprofit organizations.

Profits from such gaming operations are supposed to be used to help support the sponsoring organization. But that this may not always be the case is underscored by recent suits filed by state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti against two companies that rent casino equipment.

The complaint alleges that one of these enterprises ran a number of Las Vegas nights on the South Shore at which there was either no charitable sponsor or the advertised charitable sponsor was paid for the use of its name. Such instances are not only illegal but are in blatant defiance of the public's best interest.

This raises serious questions as to the fitness of the charitable organizations involved to be connected with any type of legalized gambling.

The 15-year-old statute, under which Las Vegas or Monte Carlo nights are permitted, specifically forbids the suppliers of the gambling equipment from providing dealers or operators. Members of the sponsoring veterans, fraternal, or religious organizations are supposed to be in full charge, with no outside help.

The attorney general's complaint cites several of these gambling programs in which representatives from the equipment supplier were blackjack dealers and craps-table operators. Such violations, no matter how isolated they may be, suggest that better policing of these gaming activities is needed.

Attorney General Bellotti, who is definitely not a gambling enthusiast, has been increasingly concerned about the encroachment of professionals into operations intended to help nonprofit groups support themselves. He warns that the state cannot afford to let what he calls ``de facto legalized casinos'' enter through the back door of charitable Las Vegas nights.

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Massachusetts certainly does not need those who either defy or twist the law to their advantage. Obviously the intent of the law is not to put any organization in the casino business. This is why each is limited to three such gambling programs a year.

But despite this restriction, there is no shortage of Las Vegas programs. There have been more than 2,000 of them at various Bay State locations since early 1984, and more than 900 last year.

Contributing to the expansion of this type of gambling was 1979 legislation that increased from $5 to $25 the top payoff for each card game or roulette-wheel spin.

Although attendance at these casinolike functions varies from a few dozen to well over a hundred, this is big business and not penny ante. And lest there be any doubt of this, it should be noted that those running Las Vegas nights last year reported combined gross proceeds of $3.9 million. And the actual take could have been even greater. The state has to depend on what the sponsors of various casino-type programs say they took in.

Unlike beano, which is supervised by the state Lottery Commission, Las Vegas nights are under the authority of a variety of state and municipal agencies. Clearly a better arrangement would be to have such operations overseen by a single agency with unquestioned power to shut down instantly those that violate the law.

The Lottery Commission, since it is already involved in overseeing beano, might be the logical watchdog for other types of legalized gaming. In this way that agency could make sure the state gets every penny due in tax proceeds from casino-type functions. Such operations netted the commonwealth just under $200,000 in 1985. That was 5 percent of reported gross receipts.

If Las Vegas nights, or even a facsimile thereof, are to be allowed to continue in Massachusetts, tougher statutes are surely needed to ensure that all such functions are run by legitimate charitable organizations, and not supposedly nonprofit groups that exist in little more than name only.

Stiffer penalties for those who violate the law might also be in order, and the sooner the better.

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