Washington State Online-Poker Felony Bill Creator Margarita Prentice Dead at 88

Flushdraw has received word that former Washington State Sen. Margarita Prentice, the author of the 2006 measure and eventual law that made the playing of online poker anywhere in the state a Class C felony, has passed away at age 88. Prentice, who was appointed to a Washington State House seat in 1988, and who then became a state senator in 1992, became a reviled figure in the online-poker world after she forced through an anti-online poker measure after receiving donations from several of the state’s casino-operating tribal nations.

Prentice passed away earlier this month at her home in Bryn Mawr-Skyway, a southern Seattle suburb. Prentice retired from public service at the end of 2012 and reportedly suffered from heart problems in her final years. According to a brief public obituary offered by the Seattle Times, Prentice died peacefully at her home, “sitting in her favorite chair with her dog on her lap.” Prentice, who was also the first Latina member of the Washington State legislature, stayed close to her 11th Senate District roots throughout her nearly quarter century in office.

The online-poker furor surrounding Prentice began in earnest in 2006, when she sponsored a bill at the behest of several of the state’s tribes. The bill made the playing of online poker a felony punishable by as much as five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, a penalty equivalent to that for disseminating child pornography. With tribal lobbying backing the bill and no real opposition, it passed unanimously in the state’s Senate and received only five nay votes in the House. This was despite the ludicrous nature of the bill, in that playing poker in any of the state’s live-casino poker rooms remained fully legal, while playing even one-penny/two-penny stakes online was a felony.

The law also contained strict penalties for participating in any way in the online-poker industry. State authorities leaned hard on online-poker affiliates based in the state, and also sent cease-and-desist letters to multiple magazines that contained online-poker advertising, causing some of those mags to cancel subscriptions of Washington State residents.

Prentice’s Washington State bill passed in June of 2006, even before the US’s federal-level UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) was passed and signed into law that fall. Still, the Washington law seemed so ludicrous that offshore sites were loath to pull services from the state, believing a legal challenge would emerge and overturn the unjust legislation. Such a challenge was mounted in 2008 by Seattle attorney and online-poker player Lee Rousso, who sued the state for the right to play poker online. However, Rousso lost his case permanently in 2010, affirming the law’s legality and notably forcing PokerStars to abandon the Washington State market.

Since then, a couple of legislative efforts have been mounted to nullify the felony law, but none of those bills have made significant headway.

As for Prentice, she was painted as a nanny-state legislator even before her bill became law in 2006, though she tried hard to downplay the many tribal campaign contributions she received over the years. (A Seattle Weekly feature about Prentice and the anti-online-poker law, “Happy to Play Nanny,” barely scratches the surface.

Instead, Prentice continued to attack the online-poker world in the days after her bill became law and received national mainstream coverage — and not long after a Washington State online-poker player, Dan “Wretchy” Martin, cashed for $160,000 in a major online tourney. Prentice told ESPN, “I just think some of these arguments are utter nonsense. You mean you’re going to move so you can play poker? Gee, lots of luck in your life. … I have nothing against card playing. That’s fine. If you want to do that, but I’m sure not going to worry about someone… you know. Let them go pump gas.”

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