No relief in sight for veterans groups

Senate takes no action to lift sanctions on slots
Veterans' organizations, such as American Legion Post 28 in Oak Orchard, will likely have to wait until after the General Assembly convenes Tuesday, Jan. 8, to see a resolution to the debate over slot machines at the nonprofit facilities. BY KARA NUZBACK
December 11, 2012

Delaware veterans’ organizations are trying to preserve a major source of revenue during the holiday season – a time when the organizations make the most donations to their communities.

Veterans’ organizations across the state were notified by a letter from state police that slot machines – a major source of funding for operations and charitable donations – were in violation of state gambling laws.

Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro said a combination of research, information from officers in the field and about six complaints from the public brought illegal gambling activities to his department’s attention.

The Cape Gazette attempted to obtain the complaints filed with DSHS, but officilas said the complaints were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

In an email, DSHS Media Relations Officer Kimberly Chandler wrote, “I am advised by the Department of Justice Deputy Attorney General assigned to the Division of Gaming Enforcement that such records are exempt from disclosure under FOIA because they are investigative files compiled for law enforcement purposes.”

The chance of passing legislation to allow the machines before the start of 2013 looks grim.  Legislators have been voted into office, but new leaders in the House and Senate have not been officially installed, which means they cannot appoint committees and committees cannot schedule a hearing on the issue.

Senators met Dec. 5 at Legislative Hall for a special session called by Gov. Jack Markell.  Senators approved a series of judicial nominations, including appointing Sussex County Prosecutor Paula Ryan to replace Sussex County Family Court Judge John Henriksen, who was removed from his post Nov. 2.

But some say the Senate also should have considered a resolution to ignore gambling laws at fraternal organizations until the full General Assembly convenes.

Tom Jones is a member of the David C. Dolby Sussex American Veterans in Millsboro, Delaware Veterans Coalition and the American Legion.

Jones, a resident of Milton, drafted a Senate Resolution on behalf of AMVETS and sent it to six legislators including Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, and Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, both of whom were selected for leadership positions in the General Assembly by the majority caucus.

Jones’ resolution would have issued a stay on the law banning gambling on the organizations’ premises until the full General Assembly convenes in January.  “This is a true emergency during this holiday season, and this is not the first time a law was set aside temporarily for the common good,” Jones wrote.

In a Dec. 3 email to Jones, Blevins said the resolution had no place at the Senate session.  “The Senate has been called into session by the governor solely for consideration of judicial nominees, and a resolution such as the one you propose would be out of order,” Blevins wrote. “I understand that there is a committee meeting, and Rep. Schwartzkopf and I have made plans to talk in the very near future about how discussions on this issue can be expedited.”

Jones responded to Blevins the same day. “The purpose of the resolution is to give the governor a sense of the Senate in regard to this matter. I was under the impression that the Senate rules allowed for this once the Senate is in session,” he wrote.

In a Dec. 6 phone interview, Schwartzkopf said he plans to make the veterans’ issue a legislative priority, but he must wait to be officially voted in as speaker of the House when representatives meet for the first time Tuesday, Jan. 8.  “My hands are tied as to what I’m allowed to do,” he said.

Schwartzkopf said if he were voted Speaker, he would then have to appoint new members to the House Gaming and Pari-mutuels Committee.  The committee could then schedule a hearing on a possible gambling exemption for veterans’ organizations.  “It’s a procedural issue,” Schwartzkopf said.  “As much as I want to get it straightened out, I don’t have the legal authority to do it yet.”

Schwartzkopf said a public hearing is necessary to give state police and veterans the opportunity to testify. “There’s a lot of rumor,” Schwartzkopf said.  “We owe the veterans the opportunity to get to a hearing.”

Schwartzkopf said he is also concerned about veterans who have already admitted they are guilty of illegal gambling because of press coverage surrounding the issue.  “There’s got to be some understanding that if they come in and talk about these machines, they’re not going to get arrested for it,” he said.  “There’s some issues of self-incrimination that need to be worked out.”

If an exemption passed to allow gambling at fraternal organizations, Schwartzkopf said, the gambling must be regulated to protect both the consumer and the organization.