Deal, state leaders vow crackdown on illegal gambling

Gov. Nathan Deal and the state's top law enforcement officials on Thursday vowed to crack down on a facet of illegal gambling they say is thriving across the state in Internet cafes.

The state has witnessed an expansion of the so-called cafes that attract online gamblers who are lured by potential cash payoffs, the governor said, estimating there are already between 50 to 100 of these operations statewide.

"Our state law prohibits gambling," Deal said. "The code is black and white on this issue."

Deal was joined at a Capitol news conference by Attorney General Sam Olens, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan and others to pledge an end to the industry.

The GBI has learned that the gambling industry has plans to "aggressively expand" in Georgia through businesses set up as Internet cafes but which are actually Internet gambling parlors, Keenan said. The governor's office said the industry plans to launch a major expansion in Georgia, growing to hundreds of locations with some sites having as many as 500 gaming terminals.

Olens said the gambling industry has been contacting local DAs in an effort to convince prosecutors that the industry is legal.

"There has been a concerted effort to skirt our laws, to intimidate prosecutors with complicated legal interpretations of existing law and to claim Internet cafes that provide gambling are not gambling and are not criminal," Olens said. "While the dark forces continue to come in our state and discourage prosecutors from taking the right action, we’re here to ...actively deal with this problem."

International gambling consultant George Joseph, of Las Vegas, praised Georgia authorities for the crackdown. He noted there has been increased scrutiny of online gambling by law enforcement, such as the FBI's shutdown in April of three of the largest Internet poker sites -- PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker.

The Internet cafes that allow gambling, Joseph said, "are attracting people to sites that can affect the outcome and there's no regulation. There are countless examples now of websites that are skewed toward cheating."

In online gambling, Joseph said, "You start off by taking a big chunk of your money and sending into cyberspace. Then you play and the operation tells you, ‘You lose. You only have a pair of twos. Send more money.' Just think about that."

There are also examples of people who win big, but can't collect because the online company refuses to pay up. "Who are you going to go to?" he asked. "Not law enforcement."

DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said he is aware such businesses operate in his county.

"I'm fully committed to disrupting these operations and running these places out of our county," James said. Too many residents become addicted to gambling and lose their savings, he said.

"These operations are a problem. They're a menace," James said.

Atlanta lawyer Ken Hodges, who represents business centers that sell Internet time, said state law provides for legitimate operations to engage in sweepstakes promotions without running afoul of Georgia’s gambling statutes.

“The people who I represent are not the only people doing this type of business in the state and I can’t speak for the others,” Hodges said Thursday. “But what my clients are doing is in compliance with the laws of the state of Georgia. Illegal gambling is not our model of business.”

Keenan said the governor has ordered him to coordinate with local police and prosecutors in a statewide effort to stamp out the industry. He said there are a number of active investigations into the industry.

But Keenan also stressed that while there are existing -- and legal -- Internet cafes in Georgia, the illicit operations are entirely different, he said. If a person searching for Internet access for legitimate reasons entered one of these places, he or she would immediately recognize something was amiss, Keenan said.

"Oh, yes, you’ll know it’s a gambling operation," he said. "It is very evident. There are legitimate Internet cafes and their business is information access. But that is much different than commercial gambling."