State police make anti-gambling sweep in Portland


One of two video poker machines at Spot Shots Billiards last November. (photo/The Fuge)
One of two video poker machines at Spot Shots Billiards last November. (photo/The Fuge)

State police make anti-gambling sweep in Portland 
Portland cops not enforcing gaming laws

By Chris Busby

For the first time in quite a while, you can see your reflection in the mirror behind the bar at Forest Gardens. The football squares that completely covered it last month have been taken down. Further down Forest Avenue at Shack’s Pub, a scuff mark marks the spot where the video poker machine once sat. At Spot Shots Billiards on St. John Street, two video poker machines at the end of the bar are also gone in the wake of what sources describe as an anti-gambling sweep by state police in recent weeks. 

As The Bollard reported in the cover story of our Winter 2007 print issue, football squares and video poker machines are both pervasive and illegal in for-profit establishments. Local law enforcement agencies, however, are loathe to enforce state gaming laws, which they consider a low priority, even though untold thousands of dollars of black-market cash are involved.

Sgt. Bill Gomane of the Maine State Police said the recent actions are part of ongoing investigations into illegal gambling activities in Portland. He said “some items were seized for investigations,” but declined to provide further details until charges are finalized or cases are closed.

Bar owners stung by the recent sweep are also staying mum. “I heard they were around,” Forest Gardens owner Richard Piacentini said of the state police, but “I did not see them at all.” Nevertheless, the décor at his business has changed considerably. 

Shack’s Pub owner Bill Shackley declined to comment, as did Katherine and Tom Lacasse of Samuel’s Bar & Grill, another business said to have been visited by state police officers. 

Shack’s and Samuel’s are both popular with Portland police officers, some of whom patronize the establishments during off-duty hours. Though illegal gaming takes place right before their eyes, Portland cops are apparently unwilling to take action – or even to talk about illegal gambling. Neither Portland Police Chief Tim Burton nor Deputy Chief Joe Loughlin returned calls seeking comment this week.

It seems they won’t be able to stay mum for long. City Councilor Dave Marshall, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he may call top Portland cops before his committee next month to explain the police department’s position on illegal gambling. “I’d be interested to hear from the police department whether or not they felt they had a clear jurisdiction over enforcement of this,” said Marshall.

City and county law enforcement agencies can take action based on state gaming laws, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson told The Bollardlate last year. “I think [illegal gambling] is problematic from the point of view that this is a law that apparently is being flaunted,” Anderson said at the time. “Law enforcement is already spread pretty thin, and it encourages a disrespect for government and its laws when a certain law is flaunted [like] this one may be.”

One possible reason Portland cops are turning a blind eye to illegal gaming is that they themselves participate in it. The Bollard asked Lt. Joel Barnes and Sheriff Mark Dion of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department whether it was conceivable that local law enforcement officers take part in illegal gambling operations.

“Of course they do,” said Barnes. “Not me, of course, but sure.”

The Portland Police Department’s unwillingness to take action against illegal games of chance also raises the specter of pay-offs – there’s lots of black-market cash involved and the illegal activities that generate that money are taking place in plain view of police officers with the authority to stop it. Though no city officials reached for comment this week were prepared to discuss that possibility, pending further comment from Portland police officials, it too exists. 

As word of the state police sweep spread last week, some bar owners took preventative measures. One bartender, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all the cash was removed from the video poker machine on the premises and the machine was unplugged. 

Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the sweep had affected the Super Bowl gambling pool he takes part in every year. However, rather than nix the pool, its organizers at a local bar have simply brought it “underground” following the visit from state cops. 

Indeed, even in the wake of the sweep, a poster of football squares was visible at Shack’s Pub last weekend, though it was taken down later that same afternoon.

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