|By Suzette Parmley, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 21, 2008 - He bought more than $34,000 worth of chips, lost more than $9,000, and rubbed elbows with high rollers at the poker and blackjack tables at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
His regular patronage earned him in excess of $1,000 worth of complimentary goods and services. And when he first walked through the doors of the youth-oriented casino in 2005, he was just 19 years old -- in a state where the legal age for gambling is 21.
He was 20 when state gambling regulators finally caught up with him in 2006, and yesterday, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission imposed on the Borgata the highest underage-gambling fine ever on a casino: $105,000.
"The commission takes underage gambling very seriously," said Dan Heneghan, spokesman for the commission. "This is a case where an individual came into the Borgata on multiple occasions over a period of more than a year and repeatedly played table games.
"He had repeated contact with multiple Borgata employees who did not verify his age," he said. "As a result, the commission feels that a fine of this magnitude was appropriate."
Besides the $105,000 fine, the Borgata was fined $75,000 for allowing six underage patrons to drink in a casino bar, and a security manager there was fined $1,000 for not immediately reporting them to state gambling regulators.
The Borgata was not the only casino that got into trouble yesterday for allowing underage gamblers onto its premises. The commission also fined the Trump Taj Mahal and Tropicana, but their penalties were substantially lower.
The Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort was fined $40,000 for allowing four underage customers to gamble there last August. And the Tropicana Casino & Resort was fined $10,000 for allowing an underage gambler to play that same month.
In those cases, the teens were playing slot machines, according to Heneghan.
"In the Borgata case, you had an underage gambler who had extensive contact with Borgata employees, such as dealers and [table] game supervisors," he said, "whereas in the other cases, they had limited contact."
According to the 16-page complaint filed with the commission's Division of Gaming Enforcement, the teen got a Borgata player's club card on Aug. 26, 2005.
"They should have questioned his age," Heneghan said of Borgata employees. "The fact that his play was rated, he was issued complimentaries, all of those factor into how significant the penalty should be."
Rob Stillwell, spokesman for Boyd Gaming Corp. of Las Vegas, which co-owns the Borgata with MGM Mirage, said the casino was vigilant in its efforts to prevent underage gambling, and these were its first such penalties since it opened in July 2003.
"Both incidents were self-reported," he said, "which means we identified them. We take these matters very seriously as evidenced by the fact these are the first incidents of this nature in our five years."
Joseph Corbo, legal counsel for the Borgata, said the casino finally caught the underage gambler when a dealer who recognized him from a previous visit thought he looked underage and asked him to show some identification.
The teen, whose identity was withheld in the complaint because of his age, was stripped by the courts of his driver's license for six months and fined $500.
For the Las Vegas-style megacasino, this is the second high-profile arrest on its casino floors in recent months.
In November, law enforcement officials said they broke up a mob-linked, multimillion-dollar gambling ring at the Borgata. The ring allegedly operated from a high-stakes poker room under the eyes of the casino's 24-hour surveillance system. Since March 2006, the ring has been accused of taking in more than $22 million in sports bets, according to the New Jersey attorney general. Unlike Nevada, New Jersey does not allow sports betting in its casinos.
Almost since its opening, the Borgata has been Atlantic City's top-grossing casino. And it markets itself as the casino for the next generation with its edgy decor and state-of-the-art technology.
But some critics say its pursuit of a youthful clientele has led it to be less watchful for underage customers.
"Of all the gaming casinos down here, Borgata is the one that participates with our responsible-gaming programs the least," said Terry Elman, acting executive director for the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, a private, nonprofit agency. "They did not join the corporate membership of the Council on Compulsive Gambling."
"They do not support the school curriculums that we pass out. They have not attended any of the underage-gambling committee meetings we've held."
Stillwell said the Borgata had taken steps through the years to address the problem of underage gambling.
The Borgata, like other casinos in Atlantic City, requires its employees to undergo training to spot underage customers. It says it rewards workers who catch underage gamblers or drinkers -- and penalizes employees who do not.
"There are stiff penalties for underage gambling against the individuals that we pursue to the fullest options under the law to prosecute," Stillwell said. "This minor was fined and his license was suspended.
"Ultimately, we did catch him," he said. "We have zero tolerance."
Elman said the fines the commission levies, like yesterday's $231,000 total for underage gambling, went into a pool that funds the council, which does not receive any tax dollars.
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writer Jacqueline Urgo contributed to this report.
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