AG eyes tighter laws before casino fight

Anticipating at least a debate around expanded gambling this fall, and perhaps operational casino or slot machine venues as early as next year, Attorney General Martha Coakley is pushing for expanded wiretapping authority and a new definition of money-laundering aimed at curbing sophisticated economic crimes.

The proposal Coakley filed Monday would update money laundering and wiretapping statutes, both of which are likely to pop up as policymakers advocating casinos or slot machines are hoping to tamp down the accompanying concerns about corruption.

The legislation, supported by a host of district attorneys and lawmakers, would strike at the higher echelons of organized gambling and crime figures who profit but “never dirty their hands,” Coakley said, pointing to those physically removed from but still involved with street-level crimes. Critics call the gambling industry particularly vulnerable to money laundering and loan sharking.

Coakley wants to alter state wiretapping statutes by allowing court-approved interceptions when just one party has consented to the recording, and add “electronic communication” language aimed at bringing law enforcement up to speed on technological advances since the last modifications to the wiretapping statute, in 1968. Coakley said 35 states have one-party consent statues, calling Massachusetts “behind the curve.”

“The sophistication of those enterprises has grown, while our ability to address it has not,” Coakley said during a press conference in her Ashburton Plaza offices.

During testimony to a Senate committee in June, Coakley said the state might also need to add to its books gaming-related crimes like cheating or counterfeiting, and suggested updating the existing illegal telephone wagering law.

The bill she described Monday afternoon criminalizes concealing or using proceeds from activity already deemed criminal to further those activities. Money laundering would carry a maximum six years in state prison, with up to eight years for repeat offenders.

Coakley said the “criminal enterprise” component of her bill would enable prosecutors to pursue organized crime families, street gangs, retail crime and identity theft rings, and large drug and human trafficking outfits. While current statutes allow for crackdowns on lower-level players, Coakley said, her proposal would outlaw patterns of certain crimes or receiving proceeds from those crimes. The legislation calls for a state prison term between five and 15 years for criminal enterprise convictions.

Acknowledging that the 31-page bill came in response to the momentum behind new gambling here, Coakley told reporters, “There’s no question that the issues that we raised today have come to the forefront because there appears to be great interest in the Legislature in moving forward.”

Five states in the country do not have at least one of the enterprise crime, money laundering, or one-party consent statutes, Coakley said. Of the 11 states that permit commercial gaming, eight have some form of enterprise crime statute, she said.
The state’s top law enforcement official has been brainstorming with legislative leaders about the contours of the regulatory structure that would govern expanded gaming here. On Monday, Coakley said Nevada’s comes closest to what she has envisioned, and said new details would likely emerge within the next week or two.

In Nevada, according to the state website, a three-member state control board oversees the industry, with seven divisions employing about 450 people: investigations, corporate securities, technology, audit, enforcement, tax and license, and administration. The board itself cedes final authority on licensing and disciplinary matters to a five-member gaming commission. Separately, a gaming policy committee meets at the call of the governor, its recommendations considered simply advisory to the commission.

Senate President Therese Murray quickly praised the legislation Coakley rolled out, saying in a press statement, “The areas outlined in the Attorney General’s bill are places where we need to make sure our laws keep up with the times.”

Gambling, which flared last year and was quashed by the House, is likely to control much of the late-year agenda, with some advocates seeing a meaningful alignment among the state’s top policymakers in general support for expanded gambling.

Gov. Deval Patrick has adopted a more hands-off approach to gambling policy this year, after rolling out his three-casino plan in late 2007 to the disappointment of many progressives within his base. Instead of actively touting the proposal again, or a newly shaped version, Patrick has said repeatedly that he expects to revisit the issue.
Most of the gambling proposals on the table would sanction either casinos, slot machines at the state’s four racetracks, or a hybrid model siting slots in ware-house like structures.