WRAL Investigates

Gambling becoming a safer bet in N.C.

Posted January 27, 2010 6:15 p.m. EST
Updated January 27, 2010 6:59 p.m. EST

— Once taboo in North Carolina, gambling appears to be a growth industry.

The casino on the Cherokee reservation in the North Carolina mountains, which already draws 2 million people a year, is expanding, as is the North Carolina Education Lottery, which will join the Mega Millions multi-state lottery game next week.

As law enforcement waits for legal guidance – a challenge to the state ban on video poker will likely go before the Supreme Court this year – the gaming industry continues building its market share in the state. The newest frontier is in so-called sweepstakes cafes, which are opening across North Carolina.

"It's like slot machines – bottom line – but I enjoy it," said Jerry Carroll, who frequents a sweepstakes cafe in Fuquay-Varina.

Despite the video poker ban, law enforcement doesn't bother the owners of such establishments, which sell players Internet or cell phone time for a variety of games.

"There's nothing going on here that is deemed illegal," said Chase Brooks, owner of the Fuquay-Varina sweepstakes cafe, noting recent court rulings protect his business.

Players often lose, but sometimes they win money in the online or phone games.

"The tickets are predetermined, just like the lottery," Brooks said.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said legal fights over such games keep his office in limbo.

"Law enforcement is not likely to spend resources investigating it if they know prosecutors can't go forward with the case," Willoughby said.

He said he also believes the public perception of gambling has eased in North Carolina, with online poker and sports betting, the state lottery and the Cherokee casino already available in the state.

"I think enforcement has changed," he said.

Since the lottery started in early 2006, gambling-related arrests across North Carolina have dropped off sharply.

"I think, when the state went into the gambling business, it was sending a message," said Bill Brooks, president of the conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council.

Brooks fought the lottery and supported the video poker ban, but now he's frustrated to see sweepstakes cafes thriving.

"I do think they are skirting the law. I think North Carolina clearly intends to regulate gambling," he said.

State lawmakers are expected to consider what to do with sweepstakes and other games when they reconvene in May.

"If the state has some concerns about it, tax it (and) regulate it. That's the key to everything," Brooks said.

"We got the lottery. We've got Cherokee, which we go to once a quarter. Then let's have full-blown gambling," Carroll said.