As recent cases show, gambling addiction drives white-collar crime
Oklahoma has one of the highest gambling-related embezzlement rates in the nation.
Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2015
Once under treatment, a compulsive gambler will be told to stay away from casinos, much like a recovering alcoholic will be encouraged to avoid bars and liquor stores. But that’s the easy part.
“Money is the drug,” said Wiley Harwell, the executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling. “If they have money, they’ll gamble.”
A typical treatment plan will include three to six months with absolutely no direct contact with cash or credit of any kind, Harwell said. Not even change for a parking meter.
“That means taking a sack lunch to work,” he said. “Somebody else pays the car bill. Somebody else deposits your paycheck. You don’t have a checkbook or a credit card or anything. The temptation is just too much.”
Now imagine a compulsive gambler with access to large sums of cash, not necessarily his own, with little or no oversight. Former state Sen. Rick Brinkley, for example, who was president of the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Oklahoma and pleaded guilty this month to embezzling $1.8 million. Or Lorna Jean Vanlandingham, a retired police officer who was the trusted treasurer of the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police for more than 15 years and is now serving a prison sentence for taking more than $400,000.
It’s like an alcoholic going to work at a brewery, Harwell said. The urge to skim off the top becomes irresistible.
“They lie to themselves,” he explains. “They tell themselves it’s not really stealing because they are going to pay it all back and nobody will ever miss it. But, of course, they aren’t going to pay it back. They’re going to lose it.”
Oklahoma has one of the highest gambling-related embezzlement rates in the country, with only California and New York seeing a higher number of reported cases in 2013, the most recent year with available statistics, according to the national Marquet Report on Embezzlement, published by a security consulting firm.
Most cases, of course, never make the front page, or even the back page, since the alleged perpetrators aren’t public figures. In fact, prosecutors suspect that the vast majority of cases go entirely unreported, with employers simply firing the culprits instead of bringing charges. So nobody really knows the full extent of the problem.
Harwell estimates that 3 percent of the population, or more than 116,000 Oklahomans, have a gambling addiction.
“With many more on their way to a problem,” he said.
Most of them will never break the law. Even so, they will still suffer consequences, from maxed-out credit cards to wrecked relationships.
Gambling addiction changes brain chemistry much the way drug addiction does, Harwell said. Or perhaps a better analogy would be porn addiction — the repeated stimulus produces a craving that requires ever more stimulation to satisfy.
It’s easy to blame casinos, which have expanded exponentially across Oklahoma since Vegas-style gaming was legalized in 2004. But like porn addicts, compulsive gamblers don’t even need to leave home to find temptation, delivered 24 hours a day through the Internet.
“I think that’s one reason it has become such a problem,” said U.S. Attorney Danny Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Tulsa. “It’s so easy to do and so easy to hide, at least at first.”
Embezzlement accounts for only a small fraction of Williams’ caseload. But when he does see it, the odds are that he will find a link to a gambling addiction, Williams said.
“They generally aren’t using the money to improve a lifestyle. They aren’t buying new cars or new homes or a boat or something. At least, that isn’t where most of the money goes. They’re gambling.”
In such cases, courts will often require counseling as a condition for release from custody, as well as a promise to stay away from casinos. But even after treatment, 80 to 90 percent of compulsive gamblers relapse within the first year, according to the National Center for Responsible Gaming. That’s basically twice the relapse rate for recovering alcoholics, according to some estimates.
After all, people can get along just fine without alcohol.
And porn addicts can unplug from the Web. But sooner or later, everybody needs a little cash.
“Money is a necessity of life,” Harwell said. “You can’t go forever without it.”
The following are criminal cases involving public officials or figures who are convicted of embezzling due to, in some part, having gambling problems.
Rick Brinkley: The former state senator from Bartlesville pleaded guilty on Aug. 21 in Tulsa federal court to five counts of wire fraud and one count of signing a false tax return. He took at least $1.8 million from his employer, the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Oklahoma, over more than nine years. Sentencing is set for Nov. 20.
Lorna Jean VanLandingham: The retired Tulsa police officer pleaded guilty in March in Tulsa federal court on charges of embezzling more than $400,000 from the state and Tulsa fraternal orders of police. She was sentenced to two years and nine months. After release, she will be on three years of supervised release and pay a $15,000 fine.
Scott E. Cooper: The former treasurer of the Society for Professional Journalists Oklahoma Professional Chapter entered a blind plea in August 2014 in Cleveland County District Court. He admitted writing checks to himself on the organization’s account and depositing into his personal account, totaling $43,220 during about a four-year span. He received a 10-year deferred sentence, four consecutive weekends at the county jail, community service and repayment of the embezzled amount.
Roger Barnett: The former second chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation pleaded guilty in October 2014 in Tulsa federal court of taking more than $200,000 in tribal funds. The theft was in $200 to $800 increments for personal use, including gambling. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison, three years of probation and about $212,000 in restitution. As part of his probation, he will not be allowed at or near any casinos and will be required to undergo gambling addiction treatment.
The Rev. Willard Jones: The former pastor of the Greater Cornerstone Baptist Church in Tulsa pleaded guilty in October 2014 to three counts of wire fraud and one count of subscribing to a false tax return related to a scheme that took nearly $1 million from a nonprofit he led. He received a 37-month prison term and ordered to repay the amount. Prosecutors said he used the money on a lavish lifestyle and “gambled quite a bit.”
Danny Rennels: The former executive secretary of the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association pleaded guilty in October 2013 to embezzlement and agreed to repay $421,500. He was sentenced to five years of probation and had several conditions for “gambling addicted persons.” Those conditions included staying away from casinos and attending gambling recovery programs.
Timothy A. Klotz: The former FBI special agent pleaded guilty in July 2012 in Oklahoma City federal court to taking $43,190 in public funds. The money was supposed to be given to confidential informants for tips on criminal activities. He was sentenced to six months in prison and restitution. He was ordered to be on probation for three years after release with the first six months on monitored home detention. He was ordered not to gamble while on probation and to attend a gambling addiction program.
Wesley Scott McGuiness: The former HOW foundation director pleaded guilty in August 2012 in Tulsa federal court for defrauding the agency of more than $1.5 million during an 8-year span. He was sentenced to one year and three months in prison and ordered to pay the amount back in restitution.
Roger Q. Melson: The former auditor for the Commissioners of the Land Office in Oklahoma pleaded guilty in November 2010 in Oklahoma County district court to 174 counts of embezzlement. He was accused of stealing more than $1 million from the state agency and received a 10-year prison sentence with 50 years of probation. His attorney described him as a “gamblaholic.”