Sunday, September 28, 2003

Wife sues to make casino ban husband


She says his bets are ruining family

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Johnnie Brown says her husband has gambled away money for the mortgage, car insurance, electric bills and phone service.

She says he refuses to admit he has a problem - and Argosy Casino officials won't stop the former GE executive from betting the last of their retirement money at the Lawrenceburg riverboat.

Now the Forest Park woman is asking a federal court to intervene in a one-of-a-kind lawsuit that seeks to change how casinos deal with problem gamblers. She wants the court to force the casino to ban her 53-year-old husband on her say-so.

"At this point right now, I've lost track of how much is gone," Brown says. "Nobody realizes what I'm going through. It has made my husband a whole different person. He's crazy with this."

Brown knows her case is a long shot. Casino executives, state regulatory agents and gambling association insiders also are doubtful.

But it raises questions about who has the responsibility for stopping problem gamblers - and basically asks casinos to act like bartenders who cut off customers who have had too much.

If successful, the suit could open the doors for third parties to bar friends and relatives from casinos. Casino officials say that would put them in an impossible position. They already operate under laws that allow problem gamblers to put themselves on a restricted list. But third parties?

"That seems like an awfully slippery slope to go down," says Mike Smith, executive director of the Casino Association of Indiana. "(Should) someone have that kind of control to exercise over another individual? From a personal standpoint, it seems like a stretch."

Smith wants to know if Brown, a 50-year-old mother of two grown children, tried to shelter herself or the family finances from her husband before filing a lawsuit.

Brown says no. She has not tried to separate her finances from her husband. She has not moved the family money into another account.

And even though she has been hospitalized with a heart attack and a mild stroke since her husband started gambling, she has not contemplated divorce.

"That's like separating my mortgage, my car, my insurance. That is not what a marriage is," she says. "I said for better or worse. I'm going to stick it out."

A wife's tale of worry and loss

Brown says her husband, Willie, has lost at least $80,000 since the first time he walked into the Argosy four years ago. She says their entire retirement is $150,000.

Willie Brown did not respond to interview requests.

"He says he does it for recreation," says Johnnie Brown, who is working at a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet while her husband dips daily into their joint account for his excursions to the riverboat. "My money is in that casino. I didn't give the casino the right to take it. ... They are letting him use my money to gamble with."

Brown says her husband has turned into a stranger. She says throughout their marriage he always made sure the bills were paid on time, that the family was able to live comfortably and that he was a kind and generous man.

She can't explain how the same man now ignores utility shut-off notices and risks foreclosure.

She says her husband has barely acknowledged the suit and hasn't responded to her lawyer or friends or family members who try to talk to him about his gambling.

"He says he doesn't have a problem," Johnnie says, adding that her husband doesn't have a favorite game, but gambles on everything - slots, blackjack, poker, whatever he feels like playing. Nearly three years ago, she talked to Argosy executives in an attempt to get them to bar her husband.

"They told me there is nothing they can do," she says.

Argosy officials would not comment on the case.

"Argosy Casino & Hotel takes the issue of problem gambling very seriously but cannot comment on pending litigation," casino officials said in a prepared statement.

No third-party bans

Indiana has a program that allows gamblers to ban themselves from casinos. From New Jersey to Nevada, most states with casinos have such programs, referred to in the gaming industry as a self-reporting restriction. If the gambler enters a casino after putting himself on such a list, he is subject to fines and in some cases arrest.

But there are no third-party bans.

"That is an issue between individuals and the casino. We don't get in the middle of that," says Joanie Jacka, administrative coordinator for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which regulates the state's casinos.

Jacka says self-reporting began in Nevada in 1998, and casinos have been careful to adhere to those lists.

The New Jersey Gaming Enforcement Division requires self-reported problem gamblers to come in, fill out a form and present a photo ID before being added to the state's list. That ensures a third party doesn't put someone on the list.

In her federal lawsuit, Brown says the casino failed to take any action after being notified that the husband was a compulsive gambler and that his behavior was causing his family serious distress.

"It is the same reasoning that a barkeep has to cut someone off when they've had too much to drink," says Brown's Cincinnati lawyer, Robert Newman. "There is a duty on the part of casinos to stop someone's husband or child from gambling away the family (finances)."

Newman says self-reporting isn't enough. He says the courts should create a standard in which a relative or friend would establish proof of financial problems. Then the casino could ban the person.

The National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C., estimates there are 6 million to 8 million problem gamblers in the United States. Executive Director Keith Whyte says studies put the cost of the problems at $5 billion a year.

"That is for unemployment, welfare, bankruptcy arrests. But it does not consider theft, embezzlement, suicide, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect," he said. "It's tough to put a price tag on devastation. It's tough to put a price on a child not going to college because a (parent) gambled away their savings."

Brown's suit was first filed in Indiana in March 2002. But the state court rejected her claims, saying her suit was based on a legal duty that Indiana does not recognize.

Newman says the ruling was wrong, and is now asking the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to send the case to the Indiana Supreme Court for a full hearing to decide if a casino has a duty to families of compulsive gamblers.

Brown says the court is her last chance. If she doesn't win there, she expects her husband will lose everything to Argosy.

"At first I did think about suicide. We had no money. The gas was off, the electricity was off. You see no way out of it," she says. "Most people don't understand. They go to a casino and then they go to their nice homes, their nice cars, nice lives. But when you are in this, you can't go home to that because you don't have it."

E-mail ranglen@enquirer.com




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