Ghost in the machine.

Author:Mooneyham, Scott

Not long ago, a crowd in the hundreds--large by the standards of your usual Raleigh political protest--showed up at the Legislative Building. A few milled about the halls. Others tried to buttonhole lawmakers. Some stood outside waving signs, a few reading: "Ban the NC Senate." They had come to try to save video poker--or rather its latest incarnation, those "Internet sweepstakes cafes" popping up across the state. Many of the protesters must have had no inkling of recent Tar Heel political history, else they would have known, standing outside in the oppressive heat, the only thing they would accomplish was working up a good sweat.


The key event of that history, as it related to their cause, revolved around the previous speaker of the North Carolina House, a man who held that post a record-tying four terms. Jim Black, the mumbling optometrist from Matthews, a Charlotte suburb, became one of the most powerful people in the state. He was once the legislative champion of the video poker industry. Today, he's in prison. Those two facts aren't unrelated.

The probe that sent him to the pen was wide-ranging, and the criminal charges to which he ultimately pleaded guilty in 2007 had to do with taking cash from a trio of chiropractors looking for legislative favors. That exchange in a restaurant bathroom may be the basis behind the public-corruption charges, but the FBI investigation began with video poker and the thousands of dollars in donations he took in from an industry operating on the fringes of the law.

As much as Black's former colleagues in the General Assembly would like to forget about it, they haven't. In 2006, a year before he would resign his House seat in disgrace, legislators voted to ban video poker. A year later, the machines began appearing again in convenience stores, operating as computer sweepstakes games, with customers buying prepaid cards. In 2008, legislators outlawed them again.

But like Ahab trying to kill his white whale, legislators can't seem to strike a final, fatal blow. Court decisions in three counties last year helped to revive the machine operators and their games. (One ruling has been overturned. Two others are on appeal.) The judges ruled that the ban didn't cover Internet sweepstakes cafes, where purchasers ostensibly paid not to gamble but for Internet time to play the games. Before long, "cafes" could be found in once-shuttered clothing stores, old warehouses and in strip malls built...

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