LAS VEGAS - The commercial casino industry wants Congress to skip proposals already on the table for regulating the estimated $6 billion online poker industry and pass new legislation that would let states decide whether to allow online gambling and would require online casino companies to be licensed.
Chief Executive Frank Fahrenkopf of the American Gaming Association said Tuesday at the start of an industry conference in Las Vegas that he's optimistic a new bill will be introduced this year.
"We're perhaps closer to federal legislation than we've ever been," Fahrenkopf told reporters during a news conference. "There's a buzz in Washington about the need for action."
Part of that buzz is the response to legal troubles facing the three companies that ran the largest online poker operations until this year - PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker.
Indictments filed in April charge that executives at the companies and people accused of moving money for them with fraud and money-laundering. Prosecutors say the defendants tricked banks into processing billions of dollars in revenue in violation of a 2006 law that prevents financial institutions from handling funds for online gambling.
The indictments show that online poker companies will be able to make billions of dollars, untaxed, if they remain unregulated, Fahrenkopf said.
"The fact is that, despite the (indictments), millions of Americans are still betting billions of dollars a year on foreign poker websites, sites outside the reach of US law enforcement, leaving US players vulnerable," he said.
Fahrenkopf said he and his staff have been working to meet with more than 100 newly elected lawmakers, most of whom haven't addressed online or offline gambling before.
The association has slowly warmed to the push for online gambling, though casinos are far from united on whether Americans should be able to gamble on poker from home on their laptops and other devices. While the AGA supports the idea of legalizing online gambling nationwide, it hasn't backed any existing bills and calls its position neutral.
Proposals already introduced for regulating online poker, including separate measures introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, are objectionable to the industry because they either call for federal regulation, going beyond the state framework in place today, or lack elements the industry is seeking, Fahrenkopf said.
Fahrenkopf said Barton's proposal is closer to what he wants but is losing steam among some lawmakers who supported it initially.
The association has been circulating a short video comparing the overall online gambling market - which it estimates generates $30 billion a year worldwide - to the Wild West. It has said it wants a six-point code of conduct to be included in any legislation, including regular audits of poker software, tight technological controls to prevent kids from gambling and procedures to prevent money laundering.
The association released the video and code of conduct proposal the same day last month that the Department of Justice expanded its probe of Full Tilt Poker, calling it a Ponzi scheme and claiming it used players' balances to pay directors. Company lawyers have rejected the comparison and called it inflammatory.