Bill Kearney, an in-your-face mortgage broker from Philadelphia, a recovering compulsive gambler and a one-time high roller in Atlantic City, is proving an annoyance to casino executives because of what he’s trying to make them do.
More than two years ago, Kearney began pushing a bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to require soon-to-open casinos to issue monthly statements to gamblers showing their casino winnings and losses.
In his home state, the bill has been overshadowed by a host of other controversies about building casinos in blighted neighborhoods, the enrichment of politically connected slot distributors and the wide-ranging powers of the newly formed Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
But Kearney’s plan is nevertheless reverberating thousands of miles away in Las Vegas, home to companies trying to toe a line somewhere between concern for problem gamblers and a focus on bottom-line profits.
If enacted in Pennsylvania, the monthly statements – which would look similar to credit card bills – would be one of the most intrusive regulations to hit the casino industry. Some insiders say issuing statements would have the added consequence of creating a paper trail that would fuel lawsuits against casinos by compulsive gamblers and their spouses.
While some casinos have painted Kearney as a vindictive extremist, he says he is motivated by an altruistic desire to help people whose gambling has become destructive.
Kearney isn’t among the casino industry’s usual adversaries. He isn’t very religious, nor is he part of the „not in my back yard“ crowd. He claims he’s not trying to shut down casinos or prevent them from spreading, calling abolitionists unrealistic and ineffective.
„They’re not going to stop the spread of gambling. It’s already here,“ he said. Of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, a grass-roots organization led by the Rev. Tom Grey, Kearney says: „They’re throwing snowballs at casinos and I’m throwing nukes. They’d never come up with something like this because they never bit the apple. They never tried the product like I did.“
Unlike other folks who make a living by promoting problem gambling efforts, he is neither a researcher nor a treatment specialist, and doesn’t stand to profit by pushing the legislation.
Kearney doesn’t have the polish of a lobbyist, the resources of a lawyer or the politeness of a church leader. What he lacks in finesse he makes up for in persistence and volume.
His crusade has taken him from town hall meetings at community centers and college campuses to radio and television. He has called up casino executives, slipping by secretaries by using the title of „reporter.“ (Kearney has written several opinion pieces for Pennsylvania newspapers.) He has confronted politicians on call-in radio and television shows, sometimes using an assumed name to reach high-ranking officials. He has sent blast e-mails to casino and government officials with confrontational titles such as „Hey casino loser, you’ve got mail.“
„This is guerrilla warfare,“ he said. „Casinos have never had to deal with someone like me.“
While anti-casino crusaders attack gambling on all fronts, Kearney has a single-minded focus: to show the destructiveness of loyalty cards. Created in Atlantic City, loyalty cards have become the industry’s chief tease, by tracking gamblers‘ activity so they can be rewarded with various amounts of perks based on the amount of their play. Casinos say they are legitimate marketing programs and inherently harmless. Kearney says they help compulsive gamblers justify their losses and can cultivate addictive behavior.
Kearney has a bone to pick. Comps helped fuel Kearney’s million-dollar-plus gambling binge in Atlantic City in the 1980s. He gambled away his drapery manufacturing business and separated from his wife.
„I went from the penthouse suite to the buffet to the street,“ he said.
Kearney calls comp cards the „syringe“ for compulsive gamblers: „This is how they deliver their drug.“
Addicts are accustomed to lying and stealing – as well as forwarding or intercepting their mail so family members can’t see past-due bills and bank statements. Casino statements could, he says, serve as a needed wake-up call for people who haven’t reached that stage yet, because it would starkly illustrate in cold black and white the loyal gambler’s winnings – and losses.
They could also dampen the allure of gambling – a prospect that could threaten casinos‘ bottom line.
Casino companies, not wanting to draw attention to the idea of loyalty card activity statements, aren’t saying much about the proposal in the hope that it will die on the vine.
Only a handful of Pennsylvania’s 253 legislators – people who generally oppose casinos – have publicly expressed support for the statements plan.
When confronted by Kearney on a television program, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a casino supporter, said he would vote for the proposal. But he has since been noncommittal. And it’s unlikely the plan will ever reach his desk. Legislators of both parties, bowing to public pressure, are pushing through a gambling reform bill that’s expected to exclude the statements requirement in favor of other, less-controversial gambling reforms.
Some casino giants have been hard at work revamping their own problem gambling programs. Harrah’s Entertainment, for example, requires casino workers to notify managers about potential problems and has trained about 700 managers how to encourage distressed gamblers to seek help. Before it was acquired by Harrah’s last year, Caesars Entertainment had just begun a controversial program of blacklisting problem gamblers and kicking them out of its casinos.
Many casinos have voluntary programs that allow gamblers to put themselves on an exclusion list that also prevents them from receiving mailers and other promotions. Some courts have ruled that casinos don’t have an obligation to enforce such programs, though regulators in certain states that have stricter social policies toward gambling, such as Missouri, have fined casinos for failing to uphold their end of the agreement.
Problem gambling is a complicated disease that requires a nuanced approach to intervention that’s too complex to be achieved through legislation, said Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations for Las Vegas Sands Corp. The company, one of many angling for a casino license in Pennsylvania, hopes to build a resort in the economically depressed steel town of Bethlehem.
„There’s no quick fix to this problem,“ he said. „The gaming industry needs to support those care providers who can help them. They need to go to professionals – it’s not up to the casino to diagnose and treat people.“
MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said the statements may seem like a logical idea but would probably be ineffective.
„The overwhelming majority of people in these clubs are able to maintain their behavior within normal bounds very easily,“ said Feldman, whose company participates in a national problem gambling fundraising group but isn’t vying for a Pennsylvania casino. A statement wouldn’t be enough to get a compulsive gambler to change their habits, making it unreasonable for companies to incur the cost of mailing out statements to millions of customers nationwide, he said.
Gamblers participating in loyalty programs at MGM Mirage and other big companies can already request statements of their play at any time, while MGM Mirage also offers account information for customers on the Internet.
Statements could create privacy problems for casinos, which can be held liable for spreading customer information.
Joe Weinert, vice president of casino consultant Spectrum Gaming Group, calls the proposal „bad public policy“ and a „slippery slope“ for American business.
„What’s to stop regulators from requiring McDonald’s to send out statements to customers who they think are getting too obese?“ Weinert said. „I think my wife buys too many shoes. Does that mean Macy’s should send out statements on how much she spends every month?“
Some treatment experts say statements may not help people and might even create problems for compulsive gamblers. Seeing how much they’ve lost could push gamblers to chase their losses or even subject them to abuse by a spouse.
„I’d be a little concerned about forcing this on people,“ said Bo Bernhard, director of gambling research at UNLV‘s International Gaming Institute. „This could exacerbate what is already a deteriorating family situation.“
One official calls those arguments „feeble.“
Unlike many other businesses that conduct transactions anonymously, casinos use comp cards to compile detailed data on how people spend their money. It’s not farfetched to require companies to disseminate information they already collect, said John Basial, counsel to Pennsylvania Sen. Rob Wonderling.
The Republican senator, who isn’t morally opposed to casinos but believes they would corrupt the state’s political system, on Wednesday introduced a bill to require monthly statements. The bill faces an uphill battle. The House version of the bill has never reached a vote. A few months ago, the House sponsor attempted to tack the provision onto a gambling reform bill. The amendment failed on a split 99-99 vote.
„This is not an attempt to make it harder for people to gamble,“ Basial said. „It’s just good consumer protection. When they’re sending out free show tickets they can certainly enclose a statement.“
Statements could be the casino equivalent of warning labels on alcohol or cigarettes.
„In the end it benefits the casino,“ Basial said. „They want people to use their product responsibly. This is one more example of good corporate responsibility.“
Most research on problem gambling, which is largely funded by the casino industry, has analyzed the behavior of compulsive gamblers, from brain waves to betting activity. There has been little research so far focusing on the effectiveness of intervention programs. That’s one of the industry’s arguments against more intrusive efforts as well as a situation that galls critics. There’s no evidence either way to prove that intervention programs work, casinos say.
While the industry has embraced voluntary programs such as hot line numbers and self-help pamphlets, casinos have fought with varying degrees of success more drastic changes – such as eliminating free alcohol and banning ATM machines in casinos – calling such efforts paternalistic.
Henry Lesieur, a staff psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital’s gambling treatment program, said statements probably wouldn’t harm gamblers and might do some good.
„It might have some merit if only because a spouse or parent or a child might see it and that might generate pressure to control the gambling,“ said Lesieur, who has criticized casino-funded research efforts and governments for not doing enough to address the problems caused by gambling addiction.
„Others tend to see a problem before (gamblers) do,“ he said. „A monthly casino statement is not going to cause them to chase (losses) any more than a monthly bank statement. The desire to win that money back to pay their bills – that’s what tends to escalate the chase.“
Some say Kearney’s confrontational approach isn’t an effective way to pressure casinos to help problem gamblers.
„This is a frontal attack,“ said Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration at UNLV who has conducted gambling surveys for casino opponents and supporters. „The fight’s over. Casinos are here. Let’s not ruin their business. Let’s ask them to be concerned and cater to responsible players.“
Kearney says he will continue lobbying long after the first slot machines are up and running in Pennsylvania, which likely will be in January. If that state’s officials don’t budge, perhaps other states will, he says.
„Nothing except the birth of my kids is as important as this. Other programs address the problem after the fact. I’m trying to let people know what’s on the horizon.“