Congress

US Congressional RAWA Hearing Lives Down to Advance Expectations

Government procedure at its worst was on display Wednesday at the oft-comical and thoroughly disappointing US Congressional subcommittee discussing the Jason Chaffetz-sponsored and Sheldon Adelson-funded RAWA (“Restore America’s Wire Act) bill.  From a choreographed and highly skewed witness list to intentional avoidance of hard facts from both those witnesses and supporting House members, the hearing offered all the worst elements of political kabuki.

congressAs to whether the hearing increased the chances that Chaffetz’s RAWA bill will receive serious Congressional consideration, it’s still too soon to say.  What was clear on Wednesday was the depth of the charades that RAWA’s supporters will pull in order to promote the bill’s US Constitution-defying cause.

The House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, part of the Judiciary Committee, delved into its form of high comedy right from the start.  The hearing’s witness list was horribly skewed, with three of the four witnesses not only being rabid anti-gambling mouthpieces, but all linked to the same anti-gambling group, Stop Predatory Gambling, a far-right organization whose officials are predominantly linked to and drawn from conservative church followings across the US.

Stop Predatory Gambling’s chairman, Les Bernal, was one of the committee’s witnesses, as was Stop Predatory Gambling board member Michael K. Fagan.  (Bernal’s over-the-top opposition to all things gambling-related will be examined in a separate FlushDraw feature.)

Fagan, a one-time DOJ prosecutor for the Eastern District of Missouri, the office that spearheaded the BOS (BetOnSports) takedown last decade, appears to have intentionally shielded his own prominent role with Stop Predatory Gambling from the greater subcommittee and the public at large.  Whether this was done with the complicity and involvement of RAWA bill sponsor Chaffetz remains unclear, but the lengthy bio Fagan submitted with his testimony makes no mention of his prominent role with the anti-gambling group.

Given that this was a hearing on exactly that topic, Fagan’s willful omission is disgusting.  In this writer’s opinion, if you can’t even be honest about who you are and what group you represent, you have no business testifying before Congress.  Such shenanigans are nothing new for this former prosecutor, of course, whose entire testimony before the subcommittee was an exercise in playing fast and loose with the facts.

Then there was John W. Kindt, the Illinois professor who’s made a second career out of authoring weird, irrational attacks on various forms of gambling, part.  Kindt’s logically false and self-circling arguments in the support of his anti-gambling beliefs have polluted gambling-related discussions for nearly two decades, though his pseudo-scientific studies continue, amazingly, to garner some press.  Kindt fondly cites his own previous studies as often as possible, though one of the comical highlights of Wednesday’s hearing was watching him repeatedly dust off the cobwebs from a long-debunked 1999 study claiming that the Internet couldn’t be regulated.  It’s a card Kindt plays often.

Kindt isn’t a board member of Stop Predatory Gambling, but enjoys a close relationship with the organization as well.  The group’s website is peppered with links to various studies authored by Kindt.

The hearing’s witness list was notable for its omission of virtually all experts in the field who might have provided business and technical insight to debunk the gambling opponents’ claims.  Online-security and geolocation experts were intentionally non-invited, nor were regulatory overseers from the three states who already have legalized online gambling in place, and who could have easily provided quantifiable evidence debunking the claims being made in the hearing.

But one other omission passed virtually without public notice — no representative of Las Vegas Sands Corp., to proclaim how the United States’ land-base gaming industry would be protected by RAWA.  Last year’s Reid-Kyl hearing featured the notable skewering of LV Sands veep and Adelson executive toadie Andy Abboud by Rep. Peter King, in a brief exchange that fully exposed the Las Vegas Sands and Sheldon Adelson hypocrisy and duplicity.

This time out, we spared Abboud’s smart-phone waving theatrics.  However, it’s interesting to consider exactly why Adelson kept his minions out of this hearing.

First, Adelson couldn’t put his own man in the hearing without opening the door for competing industry giants to have their say, and that would have meant the introduction of some of the technical expertise referenced above, which was blocked from participation.  Instead, RAWA is now being pitched clearly as an anti-gambling initiative, with Adelson willing to employ a frequent foe, in the Stop Predatory Gambling group, to achieve his own goals.

As hoped for by Bernal and company and as orchestrated by Chaffetz and Adelson, yesterday’s hearing showed that RAWA will be pitched and pushed as an emotional bill, not a logical or correct one.  How that all plays out, we’ll see in the coming months.

One can only hope that somewhere in Congress, there are Representatives more intellectually honest than Jason Chaffetz.  After all, yesterday’s hearing displayed the esteemed Utah official doing his version of “Nyahh! Nyahh! I can’t he-e-ear you!!” in response to testimony offered by Parry Aftab, the only one of the five people testifying yesterday with any reasonable base of knowledge in the topic’s technical considerations.

Even funnier, in a wry, dark way, was that one of three tech demonstrations put on yesterday by gaming-industry supporters to demonstrate the effectiveness of regulated online gambling’s security and protections was across the hallway from Chaffetz’s own Congressional office.  Chaffetz couldn’t be bothered to stop in.  He couldn’t be bothered, by all accounts, to even send a staff member over to take a few notes.

There are few things in politics more sad than to see an elected official willfully dodging exposure to facts on issues he’s decided to care about, but we saw that yesterday.  Emotional, not factual.  And not worthy of an elected official.

RAWA, now having completed its mandatory subcommittee airing, is now eligible for markup by the same handful of Judiciary Committee members who orchestrated yesterday’s charade.  It’s up to Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte to see if the bill comes up for a vote, and Goodlatte himself emphasized yesterday that he’s no fan of online gambling — even if he’s happy to see his own state’s horseracing interests receive carveouts to protect them from RAWA-style bills.

With all the factors in play, it’ll be interested to see how the RAWA debate evolves.  The bill, HR 707, might receive a vote, and it might even pass out of committee to the general House floor for consideration.  However, the opposition to the bill is massive and continues to grow, and it’s likely RAWA will encounter significant headwinds there.

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