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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » November 18, 2009
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Gov't Cracks Down on Gambling
November 18, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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The government has drafted legislation to ban gambling outside casinos as well as online gambling.

The government has submitted the bill to the parliament, which has meanwhile set up a special committee to investigate a scandal whereby high-ranking politicians from the ruling Civic Platform (PO) party allegedly lobbied for their friends running casinos and slot-machine arcades.

The bill aims to "protect Polish families from the negative consequences of gambling addiction," said Prime Minister Donald Tusk after his Nov. 10 meeting with Bronisław Komorowski, speaker of the lower house of parliament. Other parliamentarians including the chairman of the lower house's public finance committee also took part in the meeting.

Under the bill, gambling will only be allowed in gambling facilities, such as casinos and bingo halls, and in betting shops. The draft also proposes higher taxes for the gambling industry and a ban on online gambling through what are called video lotteries.

If the bill becomes law, gambling outlets with low-wager betting machines will be removed from the list of legal gambling facilities, government officials said. The owners of existing machines will be allowed to operate them until their licenses expire. No new licenses will be issued and the old ones will not be extended.

Slot machines, also known as one-armed bandits, are the most worrying and crime-prone segment of the gambling market, the government says. Gambling machines of this kind can be found virtually everywhere in Poland-in bars, stores, shopping malls, at gas stations, railway stations and so on. Experts say the machines are in fact beyond the control of the taxman because their operators do not disclose their real earnings and declare only minimum income amounts for tax purposes.

Police officers say a large percentage of the machines is controlled by crime groups that force bar and restaurant owners to install one-armed bandits in their establishments. Although these are officially classified as low-wager betting machines, with winnings no higher than zl.50, many of the machines have been converted to enable much higher wins and attract more players.

Psychologists have warned for years that a gambling addiction often starts with a compulsion to play slot machines. Schoolchildren are an especially vulnerable group because the age of slot machine players is not restricted in any way, psychologists say. This is in contrast to casinos where only adults are admitted and every entering person is registered.

Tusk said the bill would protect children and young people from easy access to gambling. "The large number of tragedies suffered by Polish families as a result of gambling addiction, especially among young people, and consequently the financial problems of many Polish families, is an additional argument in favor of a speedy adoption of the law," Tusk said.

Experts say the bill may be passed soon because most of the parliamentary parties are in favor of changing the existing system of supervision over the gambling business.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary committee appointed to investigate the gambling scandal looks to be in for a tougher job.

The committee's seven members were selected by parliament Nov. 6. The committee is chaired by Mirosław Sekuła of the Civic Platform (PO), former head of the central auditing office (NIK). The other members of the committee are Sławomir Neumann and Jarosław Urbaniak of the PO, Beata Kempa and Zbigniew Wassermann of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, Bartosz Arłukowicz of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), and Franciszek Stefaniuk of the Polish People's Party (PSL).

The parliamentary investigators are supposed to examine the course of work on gambling legislation when the SLD, PiS and PO governments were in power. The committee will specifically focus on provisions concerning low-wager betting machines and video lotteries. The deputies will also examine the activities of state institutions in the context of an information leak involving an operation of the Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) targeting those working on gambling legislation.

The committee is expected to report on its work by Feb. 28, but commentators say the deadline is unrealistic. PiS, outraged by the fact that a deputy from the party has not become the committee's chairman or vice-chairman-Sekuła's only deputy is Arłukowicz-argues that it is unacceptable that the PO should "be a judge in its own case." PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński says this shows that the committee's only task is to "sweep things under the carpet."

The committee will examine issues including accusations against the government by CBA head Mariusz Kamiński during the gambling scandal. The latter had been removed from his post in the wake of a scandal over the disclosure of materials from the surveillance of PO politicians holding talks with businessmen operating in the gambling sector. Two prominent PO politicians, Mirosław Drzewiecki, the sports minister, and Zbigniew Chlebowski, head of the PO parliamentary group and chairman of the parliamentary committee for public finance, lost their jobs as a result of the scandal.

Kamiński suggested that the CBA operation had ended in a fiasco because information about it could have been leaked to the gambling business owners from the Prime Minister's Office. Kamiński said the businessmen suddenly stopped meeting and talking by phone with the PO politicians soon after he reported to the prime minister about the suspicious contacts of his party colleagues. After this public accusation, Tusk dismissed Kamiński, but the latter has repeated his allegations in numerous interviews. The alleged leak is to be one of the issues examined by the investigation committee.

Tusk said that if he were called as a witness he would not try to avoid appearing before the committee and answering questions. But the list of witnesses is still being drawn up and it will take a few weeks before we know whom the deputies want to question.
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