BOSTON (AP) — When Massachusetts lawmakers crafted the state’s casino law, they also created a new network of law enforcement agencies aimed at keeping an eye on the gambling facilities and their operators.
Among the new investigative bureaus established by the law is a division of gaming enforcement overseen by state attorney general’s office and a gaming liquor enforcement unit within the state’s existing Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
The law also requires the state police to set up their own gaming enforcement unit.
The as-yet-unnamed five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission will help coordinate the policing units. The commission will have its own investigation and enforcement bureau with the power to issue subpoenas and refer cases for civil or criminal prosecution.
The heightened level of law enforcement oversight reflects lawmakers’ nervousness about opening the doors to an industry some associate with a rise in criminal activity, from organized crime to prostitution. The new law will also license one slots parlor.
The law enforcement structure, with the new gaming commission helping coordinate the policing units, makes sense, Attorney General Martha Coakley said.
Placing too much power in one agency could limit the amount of oversight while creating an organization that is too diffuse would leave no one in charge, she said.
“It’s structured appropriately. It was important to have some checks and balances,” she said. “If it’s too much or too little we can go back to the Legislature and say we need something more or less.”
An anti-casino group led by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger has argued for even stronger centralized control, saying the fracturing of law enforcement oversight among multiple agencies creates a potential logistical and communications nightmare.
And it’s not too late to change the structure, said a spokesman for Harshbarger’s group, Citizens for a Stronger Massachusetts.
“It’s incumbent on the (gaming) commission, as one of its first acts, to centralize all law enforcement and regulatory efforts and clearly define a chain of command,” said the spokesman, David Guarino.
Under the new law, the primary enforcement agency for casinos in an “investigations and enforcement bureau” that will be created by the state’s new gaming commission.
The law specifically designates the bureau as a law enforcement agency with the power to investigate any suspected violations of the casino law and report possible violations to the attorney general and FBI, depending on jurisdiction.
The law also requires the colonel of the state police to create a new gaming enforcement unit to work with the gaming commission’s investigative bureau.
A state police spokesman said even before the bill became law, top police officials visited law enforcement units at casinos in other states including New Jersey and Connecticut to pick up ideas on how best to police casinos. A trip to Delaware is also planned.
While the gaming commission’s investigations bureau is the primary enforcement agency, the casino law explicitly gives the new state police unit “exclusive police jurisdiction” over any criminal activity relating to casinos in cooperation with local police.
The law also requires that Coakley create a division of gaming enforcement within the attorney general’s office to work with the state police gaming unit and the gaming commission’s investigations bureau.
Investigators for the new policing units will have to adhere to heightened ethics codes, barring them from wagering in casinos and guarding against financial conflicts of interest.
The gaming commission is required to cover the costs of the attorney general’s gambling unit.
One of the more challenging tasks created by the casino law is enforcement of the state’s liquor laws, in part because casinos will be able to serve free drinks on the gaming floors. No other business in the state is allowed to so serve free alcoholic drinks.
It’s the job of the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission to oversee and enforce liquor laws. The agency falls under the control of state Treasurer Steven Grossman, who said the casinos will provide a new challenge for the ABCC.
“We are in uncharted waters,” he said. “The enforcement of liquor laws in a casino and other gambling facilities is a different set of responsibilities than overseeing the laws in smaller pouring establishments.”
While the law requires the ABCC to create the new unit, the state gaming commission will designate the number of investigators needed to staff it.
The investigators will report to both the ABCC and the gaming commission. The cost of the unit will be picked up by the commission, which will also have final approval over its budget.
The law also requires that liquor investigators be rotated in and out of the casino unit periodically.
“At the end of the day, the laws are the laws,” Grossman said. “Underage drinking is underage drinking and other (liquor) laws need to be enforced and maintained.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.