Massachusetts casino bills avoid wiretapping laws

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press Writer / June 7, 2010

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BOSTON—Massachusetts lawmakers have failed to back a key recommendation from Attorney General Martha Coakley to toughen the state's wiretapping laws as they push ahead with plans to license multiple casinos.

Coakley has repeatedly said Massachusetts needs to bolster laws against money laundering, organized crime and wiretapping before it expands gambling.

Both the House and Senate casino bills include measures targeting money laundering and organized crime.

Neither adopts Coakley's wiretapping recommendations; Coakley spokeswoman Emily LaGrassa expressed disappointment.

"We continue to work with the Legislature to ensure that comprehensive public safety statutes we've proposed are in place should casino gaming be legalized in Massachusetts," LaGrassa said.

The Senate is planning a public hearing on its casino bill Tuesday.

A separate bill sponsored by Coakley and eight of the district attorneys that includes the wiretapping recommendations has stalled on Beacon Hill.

A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said the draft Senate casino bill includes Coakley's recommendations on money laundering and "enterprise" or organized crime.

The Senate bill also creates new crimes of "swindling, cheating a game, making false statements to the gaming board, underage gaming, allowing people on exclusion lists to gamble, unlawful manufacture of a gaming machine and possessing a cheating device," Murray aide David Falcone said.

When Coakley unveiled her bill last year, she said the state's wiretapping law needed to be revamped to give investigators the tools they need to probe the types of crimes the state might see if it allowed casino gambling.

Coakley's bill would expand the range of crimes wiretaps can be used to investigate, including public corruption and ethics investigations.

It would also allow for one-party consent for wiretaps and extend the time a lawful interception can remain open from 15 to 30 days.

Massachusetts wiretap laws were last updated in 1968, well before the arrival of cell phones and other forms of modern electronic communications.

"Massachusetts is behind the curve," Coakley said when she unveiled the bill.

Electronic surveillance has proved crucial in recent federal public corruption investigations, including the case against former state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, D-Boston.

During that investigation, the FBI was able to enlist the aid of a cooperating witness to listen in on and videotape meetings with Wilkerson where she pledged to help obtain a liquor license in exchange for a payoff.

"I pushed this envelope farther than it's ever been pushed before," Wilkerson said at one point according to the affidavit. "I twisted these people's arms ... I've been beating people up."

Wilkerson pleaded guilty last week of taking $23,500 in bribes and faces up to four years in prison.

Under Massachusetts' existing wiretap laws, it would be harder for the state to conduct a similar investigation of a public official or lawmaker.

Casino foes are pressing Coakley to push lawmakers on the need for tough consumer protections as well -- like requiring that the odds of winning and the expected payout on a dollar bet be posted on every slot machine -- when she testifies at Tuesday's hearing.

The opponents are also pressing lawmakers to conduct an analysis of the casino bills. Without an impartial look at the costs and benefits, there's no way lawmakers can take an informed vote, they said.

Casino supporters who plan to attend include the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, who say they're proceeding with plans to build a casino on a 240-acre parcel near Route 195 in Fall River.

The state's other federally recognized tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, last month announced it had struck a deal with Fall River to develop a resort-style casino including hotels, a shopping mall and convention facilities on a separate 300 acres parcel along Route 24.

Donald Flanagan, a spokesman for the Aquinnah Wampanoags, say their proposal would let Fall River build a planned biotechnology park on the land that the Mashpee tribe wants to use for a casino.

The proposed Senate casino bill would allow the state to license three casinos while keeping a ban on racetrack slots. Two of the casino licenses would be competitively bid. The third would go to a qualified Indian tribe.

House lawmakers have already passed a bill that would license two casinos and allow up to 750 slot machines at each of the state's four racetracks.

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