Nangle arrest casts shadow on casino buy-in

Rep’s indictment puts gambling downsides on display

WHEN MASSACHUSETTS ROLLED the dice in in 2011 and decided to join the casino bandwagon, it was certain that stories would eventually surface of lives ruined by the lure of legalized gambling. But House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who pushed hard for passage of the state’s casino law, clearly never expected that a member of his leadership team would become the first prominent example of that.

State Rep. David Nangle, one of DeLeo’s four “floor division leaders” and a member of the House Ethics Committee, now stands as Exhibit A of the downsides of legalized gambling, facing a multi-count federal indictment charging him with using campaign donations to fund trips to casinos, filing false federal tax returns and bank statements, and getting free work from a contractor who later won a lucrative state contract.

The federal indictment says Nangle, who entered a not guilty plea yesterday to all charges, was a gambler who piled up huge debts. The indictment says Nangle’s string of criminal activity dates back at least to 2014, so his gambling-fueled problems predate the opening of casinos in Massachusetts.

The case nonetheless casts a harsh spotlight on a problem DeLeo, Gov. Deval Patrick, and other champions of the casino law tried to minimize: While as little as 2 percent of the overall population may suffer from gambling addiction problems, those people account for a far greater portion of the revenue casinos bring in.

One of the most thorough studies of the question, a 2004 report on casino gambling in Ontario, concluded that 35 percent of the Canadian province’s casino revenue came from moderate to severe problem gamblers.

The research suggests problem gamblers aren’t so much an unfortunate side-effect of the casino industry, but an important part of its business model. “This is an industry, like it or not, that is making its money off the sickness of its clients,” Earl Grinols, a Baylor University economics professor who has done extensive research on the casino industry, told CommonWealth in 2005.

The state approved casinos in the face of a crushing recession, with DeLeo going to great lengths to frame the debate as solely about putting people to work.

“The debate over the destination gaming issue is not a philosophical one,” he told House members in a January 2010 speech on the agenda for the coming year. “It is about a fight for job creation.”

The State House News Service reported that Nangle was among those House members who voted against casinos under Speaker Sal DiMasi, who opposed their introduction, but flipped to vote for them under pro-casino DeLeo. In the pliant follow-the-leader ways of the Massachusetts House, that qualifies as an odd form of consistency.

While casinos have clearly led to the creation of thousands of new jobs, far less attention has been paid to the fact that they invariably also cost some people theirs. Usually those losses play out quietly in sad tales of families undone and finances flattened. With yesterday’s high-profile example, casinos may have claimed a job from under the capitol dome where they were welcomed into the state.