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O.C. Chiefs Say Card Clubs Invite Political Corruption

June 03, 1993|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — As the emotional campaign to legalize card clubs in Cypress and Stanton entered its final days, Orange County law enforcement leaders weighed in Wednesday with a carefully timed salvo on the dangers of legally sanctioned casinos.

The Orange County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff's Assn. joined Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi and Sheriff Brad Gates in an announcement condemning the effort to bring card clubs back to Orange County after an absence of more than a dozen years.

In their announcement, the law enforcement officials highlighted many of the same arguments voiced for years by card club critics--that the clubs encourage money laundering, loan sharking, extortion and a range of other crimes. But they also emphasized a point that has been heard less often in the debate, insisting that clubs will make make elected officials "vulnerable to corruption."

"In all too many instances," the police association said in its written statement, "the ease with which money can be funneled through one of these clubs has been utilized to 'purchase' favorable treatment from public officials."

Voters in the two North County cities will go the polls Tuesday to decide whether they want to legalize card-club gambling within their borders. A vote for the clubs would open doors to new establishments that backers say will produce hundreds of local jobs and millions of dollars a year in public revenue.

Even club backers acknowledged Wednesday that the strong voice of opposition from the police chiefs' association could help sway voters who have grown more and more weary of crime in their communities in recent years.

"I think it does have an effect. These (law enforcement officials) are important people, and they believe in what they're saying," said Chris Bardis, one of three owners of the Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress who are trying to win approval of a $30-million card club and entertainment center at the track.

"But it would have been nice if these people had come over and looked at our operation before making these comments. . . . These guys have already made up their minds. It's appalling," he said.

"I can understand some of their positions, but I would say that just like there are bad cops, there are bad card club operators. That doesn't mean they're all bad," he said.

Bardis added that the Los Alamitos track has taken horse racing bets for 41 years, "and we haven't corrupted any public officials here, because we run a good operation."

But the police chiefs' association statement warned that, unlike the case of horse racing in California or casinos in Las Vegas, California does not have a state gambling commission to oversee club operations, leaving local police to check the backgrounds of club owners and employees and to review record-keeping. That amounts to "a monumental task," the statement said.

Clubs have also proven vulnerable to organized crime and customers have been victims of "follow-home robberies," in which criminals target card players who have won cash and then follow them home, police officials said.

"After careful review and consideration, our association must take notice that history has shown these establishments to be magnets to those criminal activities which are most difficult to prove and even more difficult to displace," officials said.

Westminster Police Chief James Cook, president of the chiefs' association, said members from the group's 22 cities and the offices of the district attorney, the sheriff and the county marshal voted in a special session on the issue last month, but he refused further comment.

"You have the statement," he said. "That's it. That's all we're going to say."

But Irvine Police Chief Charles S. Brobeck, who attended the meeting, said he believed the decision was unanimous except for one or two abstentions.

Cypress Police Chief Daryl Wicker said he could not discuss the "highly emotional" subject, even to say whether he cast a vote or abstained.

"I've steadfastly maintained a position of neutrality," he said. "When the election is all done, I still have to police the city--with or without a card club."

Chief Brobeck said the card club issue put the chiefs' association "in a real tough situation" because backers are promising city leaders millions in new revenue at a time when governments are curtailing services and staff because of financial problems.

"These guys are guaranteeing 'X' amount of dollars, and it really puts a hold on you," he said.

Despite the financial incentives, Brobeck and other police officials said in interviews that they were swayed to speak out because of concerns about public safety.

"We felt a professional obligation to let the public know how we feel and what the impact could be on their communities," said Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters. "Professionally, we did the only thing we could do--and the right thing."

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