FairPlayUSA joins push to legalize online poker in America

The campaign to legalize online poker in the United States has a new player.

FairPlayUSA was launched with the goal of persuading Congress to set up a regulatory structure that will allow Americans to legally bet on online poker games, Executive Director Marisa McNee said.

The coalition has attracted high-profile advisers such as former Homeland Security chief and ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to support efforts to fully legalize online poker. The advocacy group is also seeking to clarify the nation’s online gambling laws to define what is legal and what is not.

“We are not doing lobbying of any kind; we are doing outreach trying to educate the public and Congress on the need to reform federal Internet gambling laws,” said McNee, whose group is based in Washington, D.C.

The group’s website features a petition calling on Congress to address problems associated with offshore Internet gambling, give law enforcement the tools to crack down on illegal sites and establish a strict regulatory framework.

McNee stressed the need for a group like FairPlayUSA with a “broad and diverse” base of support to push for the regulation of online poker.

“The federal laws aren’t working,” she said. “We need to fix the system.”

In 2006, Congress passed a Republican-sponsored bill to crack down on Internet gambling in the United States by barring payment processors such as credit card companies and PayPal from handling payments for online bets.

But it did allow for online bets for horse races and Internet-based state lotteries.

However, critics argue the bill, known as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act of 2006, has done little to stop Americans from gambling online and denies the federal government potential tax revenues.

The act also, critics argue, exposes U.S. participants to potential fraud and abuse because most Internet gaming sites are based overseas.

On April 15, federal indictments were released against the owners of PokerStars, FullTilt Poker and Absolute Poker. On May 24 federal officials in Baltimore also seized 11 bank accounts and shut down 10 Internet poker websites.

Despite the federal crackdown, online poker games for money are still available to U.S. players. PokerScout.com, which tracks the top 49 poker sites, reported Tuesday that nine websites accept sign-ups from U.S.-based players.

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has introduced a bill that would legalize online poker and direct the U.S. Department of Commerce to set up licensing and consumer-protection agencies.

Barton’s bill would authorize online poker only in states that allow it.

McNee said her organization had received some startup funding from MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corp. She declined to discuss contributions by Las Vegas-based gaming companies.

“There is a need for advocates from varied points of view,” said Alan Feldman, senior vice president public affairs at MGM Resorts. “We are certainly supportive of their efforts to bring in law enforcement and Internet security experts.”

Feldman reiterated MGM Resorts’ position that it prefers federal legalization.

“A state-by-state solution is chock-full of problems,” he said, “It’s not what is needed now. A state-by-state solution calls out more for a federal response to the issue.”

McNee said the group hasn’t taken a position on the Barton bill and only favors legalizing online poker and not other forms of online gaming.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at
csieroty@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893.

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