LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Issa's not bluffing

May 8, 2006

Being the free-market, business-promoting, regulation-reducing Republican that he is, one expects Darrell Issa might get periodic ribbing from an environmental group or two, or perhaps from one of those left-leaning ivory-towerish sorts.

But from the Poker Players Alliance?

The alliance last week sent a rather blunt letter to Issa, one insinuating that the Vista congressman doesn't know a whit about online gambling.

We thought we had met just about every watchdog, nonprofit group, think tank and special-interest organization under the sun, but we had to admit the Poker Players Alliance was new to us.

Issa, a worldly sort, had to admit it was new to him.

“There's a Poker Players Alliance?” he asked.

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The PPA – which we'll use as shorthand because this is Washington, after all, and if you're dealing with the big guys, you need an acronym – is, according to its Web site, a “nonprofit membership organization comprised of poker players and enthusiasts from around the United States who have joined together to speak with one voice to promote the game, ensure its integrity, and, most importantly, to protect poker players' rights.”

So what's their beef with Issa?

Well, for one thing, they want him to back off. They are annoyed with his support for a bill that the group claims would “deny 23 million Americans the ability to play Internet poker.”

HOUSE RULES

The bill in question, House Resolution 4777, is known as the Internet Gambling Protection Act and was written by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. It would prohibit using the Internet to operate a gaming business, though states could allow it with strict oversight as long as the bettor, the gambling business and anyone processing the bets is physically located in that state.

Issa had no particular hand in this legislation – did not conceive it, did not help write it, is not even one of the 131 co-sponsors – but the alliance nonetheless singles him out in its news release, presumably because he sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which eventually will consider the plan.

“I've been supportive of legal gambling, legal alcohol sales and even legal tobacco sales,” said Issa, who does intend to support Goodlatte's bill. “But in all three cases . . . they're regulated.”

Internet gaming, he said, is not.

According to David Carruthers, chief executive of online wagering company BetOnSports, online gaming is a $12 billion-a-year industry. Carruthers estimates that Americans paid more than $500 million this year to place Super Bowl bets online.

Michael Bolcerek, the alliance president, asks Issa, a multimillionaire and former gubernatorial candidate, to consider a key question when he casts his committee vote: If we prohibit gambling on the Internet, are we really supporting the principles of liberty and personal freedom?

Issa has traveled the globe, interacted with world leaders and can talk authoritatively on most topics you toss his way. Except when it comes to the Poker Players Alliance.

“They may have been formed yesterday, and they want you to make them a household word,” Issa cracked.

ALL HANDS ON DECK

Well, not yesterday, exactly. The group was formed seven months ago, and claims 20,000 members. The board includes such notables as chairwoman Linda Johnson, self-described “First Lady of Poker” and World Series of Poker open event champ. Johnson dumped her job 26 years ago to play professionally in Las Vegas.

There's also Jan Fisher, poker entrepreneur, veteran of Las Vegas cardrooms and a former poker dealer. And Bolcerek, a former MongoMusic executive and merger-and-acquisitions specialist.

A formidable team, indeed. But Issa is not easily daunted.

“I guess they're assuming I'm not going to allow somebody in Belize to run unregulated gambling,” Issa said. “I'm a big supporter of keeping the Net as unregulated as possible and as untaxed as possible, but . . . the Internet is global, and you have to empower states as much as you can to decide what” can transpire on the Web.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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