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How come doing the right thing is always so problematic?

April 05, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

One local rooster fight in Annapolis had just, thankfully, been put to rest when the next one reared its amusing head.

This fight is, naturally, over tip jar gambling in Washington County. What would a legislative session be without some bare-fisted dustup over tip-jar gambling?

Local Republican delegates are furious with Washington County's lone Democratic delegate, John Donoghue who represents the City of Hagerstown.

"I was shocked and dismayed," said Del. Chris Shank, after Donoghue took the unusual step of arguing on the House floor against a Washington County tip jar bill. "He tried to make the entire Washington County Delegation look bad. It was bad form and he ought to be ashamed of himself."

Well.

To my mind, Donoghue might have been forgiven for extraordinary and unconventional methods (it is considered bad form in Annapolis to fight on the floor against a bill your own committee or delegation has passed) if the bill in question were an abomination.

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But quite the opposite is true: The Republicans' bill is a good and necessary one.

The bill simply makes it clear (it is already implied, under the law) that an establishment that sells tips to the public cannot also make a business of selling them wholesale.

The reason is simple. Wholesalers of the gambling tickets must tell the County Gaming Commission how many tips they have sold, and to who.

The retailer must also report to the county the number of tips they have sold to the gambling public, and pass a percentage of the profits along to the county charities.

Without the wholesaler's report, it would be difficult for the county to determine whether a retailer was telling the truth about the number of tips it had sold.

Currently, the county can check to see if the wholesaler's and retailer's numbers match, which they should. If, however, a wholesaler reports selling 100 packages of tips to Bar X, but Bar X reports selling only 50, there is a likelihood that Bar X is selling tips under the table so it gets the profits instead of charity.

Of course this does not mean that the Washington County Restaurant and Beverage Association wants to wholesale tips to its members so that they can cheat. The people I know there are good and trustworthy folks. But the fact remains that we do not know who will be leading the association 10 or 20 years from now.

Worse for the association, an unscrupulous individual might be tempted to worm his way into the group's leadership at some point in the future specifically because the protections have been removed and the system can be beaten. I don't believe this is the type of person the association wants to attract.

Shank is absolutely correct when he says that the $83 million tip jar gambling industry needs a clear and solid firewall between the wholesalers and retailers. When so much money is at stake, the slightest chink in the dam of checks and balances is bound to erode into a major breach.

Without this separation, Shank says, "There's no way to ensure accountability. The entire system collapses and there is no way to effectively regulate tip jars."

It is also a credit to the local private clubs that they have seen the dangers in foxes guarding coops and have come out against a blurring of the wholesale/retail line.

With the dangers so clear, it begs the question: What is Donoghue thinking? His public line is that the question is already before the administrative courts, and these agencies should be allowed to handle the job. But that's shallow thinking. Judges base their decisions on legislation the General Assembly has written. If the tip-jar law is vague, a judge may be bound to award victory to the "wrong" side.

Donoghue has been in Annapolis long enough to know that legislatures are all the time clarifying and tidying up laws that have unintended consequences. His argument that his actions are based on "fairness" makes no sense. What, he wants to give organizations a "fair" shot at beating the system?

Donoghue's problems worsened later in the week, when it was revealed that his investment firm managed a Washington County Restaurant and Beverage Association account. He brushed off any questions of conflict (however, if the association profits from selling wholesale tips, it could theoretically have more money to invest with Donoghue's firm) saying the whole matter "has gotten out of hand."

Indeed it has. Remember, when it came time to vote on construction for the Baltimore Ravens' new stadium in 1996, Donoghue abstained because he said he - might - have a hand in the project's financing on down the road.

Why did he see a conflict over his potential involvement then, but does not see a conflict in an existing involvement now?

Donoghue, whose integrity has always been beyond reproach, is listening to the wrong people or the wrong lobbyists most likely. He should consider that true friends wouldn't ask him to put his reputation on the line for such a dubious cause.

Donoghue said, "All this (bill) does is force the issue and make the decision for the judge."` Very true. It forces honesty. If forces the closure of a serious loophole. It forces everyone to do the right thing.

Donoghue has a problem with that?

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