department of justice

Acting Attorney General Claims He Had No Hand in New Wire Act Opinion

We in the poker world are always concerned about the game, obviously. While we want our lawmakers to concern themselves with it, too, namely make online poker legal, I always assume that either a) legislators couldn’t care less about it, or b) legislators quite literally don’t know anything about online poker. I’m usually correct on both accounts, but last week, imagine my surprise when I had cable news tuned to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee and heard a discussion of the Wire Act! Whitaker was questioned by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D – MD) and to say that the few minutes got heated would be an understatement.

The hearing was primarily about the oversight of the United States Department of Justice in general, but Rep. Raskin used his time to hit at some of the possible political and financial corruption within the department. Carefully transcribed by yours truly, here was Rep. Raskin’s into to his line of questioning about the Wire Act:

I’ve got a theory that I want to float with you and it goes to something very strange that’s been happening at the Department of Justice… recently.

Casino billionaire and magnate Sheldon Adelson hates online gambling, for obvious reasons. It’s competition for him; he wants people in the casinos, not online. And he spent more than a million dollars lobbying Congress to override the 2000 [Author’s note: 2011] opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel – DoJ – saying that the Wire Act plainly prohibits only sports gambling online, not gambling in the states, which is why Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, have built important business for themselves online. But Congress wouldn’t change the law according to the demands of Mr. Adelson, so rather than change the law, he decided to try to get the Department of Justice to change the interpretation of the law and he threw millions into a campaign to remake the DoJ and get the Office of Legal Counsel to perform a complete reversal and say that the Wire Act bans the kind of lotteries that states run online, even though its language plainly prohibits only sports betting.

And when Donald Trump won and Mr. Sessions became AG and you became Chief of Staff, DoJ leadership ordered a reevaluation of this legal question and what do you know? The Office of Legal Counsel find some subtle and invisible points of law that apparently escaped the Department of Justice in 2011 and reversed the plain reading of the interpretation which talked specifically about sports betting.

Raskin then asked Whitaker if he was involved in the decision by the Justice Department to have the OLC look at the Wire Act again. Whitaker said no and that because Attorney General Sessions (to whom he oddly kept referring as “General” Sessions) had recused himself on internet gambling matters, he, himself was also recused.

He said he has never met Sheldon Adelson and has thus never talked to him about the Wire Act and has never spoken with any lobbyists. When asked about Charles Cooper, an Adelson lobbyist and Sessions’ former personal lawyer, Whitaker said he did know Cooper, but never spoke with him about the Wire Act.

When Rep. Raskin’s time was up, Whitaker was permitted to go back and expand upon his answer to the Wire Act line of questioning.

“The first OLC opinion that preceded the one we just issued in November was done and the state of Illinois provided a white paper regarding the position on the Wire Act,” Whitaker said. “So, I think it is very consistent and your inference, somehow, that that process was corrupted or corrupt is absolutely wrong….”

Rep. Raskin never actually mentioned any sort of memo drawn up by Adelson’s lobbyists, but Whitaker assumed (and maybe rightfully so) that he was referencing the report from The Wall Street Journal that said Adelson’s team did just that: write a memo for the Justice Department with their interpretation of the bill. And while Illinois did submit a memo of its own, there are a couple of big differences. First, Illinois had a legitimate reason to ask about the interpretation of the Wire Act – it wanted to see if it would be permitted to sell lottery tickets online – whereas Adelson had no legitimate reason to request it be reevaluated. And second, Illinois wasn’t peddling influence and basically operating marionette strings in Congress and the Justice Department via millions upon millions of dollars of contributions. Illinois was asking the Justice Department and Office of Legal Counsel for input on the law. Sheldon Adelson was asking for specific action be taken to benefit him.

Video of the heated conversation, including the Wire Act line of questioning, is below:

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