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Thriving Mon Valley NCAA pool shut down by state

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The NCAA basketball tournament still has four rounds to go, but for thousands of small-time bettors in a big Mon Valley bracket pool, it ended before the games began.

Agents from the State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement raided Clancy's Pub in Dravosburg last Tuesday, shutting down a pool that had grown from a few hundred dollars in wagers in 1984 to some $100,000 and 5,000 participants last year, according to the primary operator.

Does this mean your office pool could be raided next? Probably not.

"There are varying legal interpretations among prosecutors on the definition of what is an illegal betting pool," said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, who noted his office focuses on large-scale illegal gambling operations rather than pools.

In some interpretations, operating an office or tavern pool is acceptable if all of the entry fees are paid out to the eventual winner, rather than any being pocketed by the organizer. The law can also be read to view a pool of any kind as illegal gambling, although it would obviously be hard to enforce against all of thousands of contests under way this month.

The Mon Valley pool had a wide reputation.

"Everybody and their mother knew about this pool," said Dave Weber of Whitaker, a laid-off bartender who has coordinated it with a group of friends from the outset. "It started out as fun, and once it started ballooning up, how could you stop it? Everyone would ask, 'Are you having a pool? Are you having a pool?' "

Weber, 57, claimed full responsibility for running the pool, saying he used Clancy's only as a convenient drop-off and collection point.

"To have this for three weeks, to me it's harmless fun," he said. "It keeps everyone interested. Everyone watches the games. I don't know, I didn't see any problem with it ... but I'm the guy who runs the stupid thing. If anyone should be going to the slammer for it, it's me."

No arrests were made and no citations were issued, but the state's liquor code forbids licensees from permitting pools and other gambling on their premises, even if they are not operating them or taking any profits from them.

Sam Yurich, a supervisor for the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said he could not comment on any action likely to be taken against Clancy's. The officers confiscated pool and raffle tickets and about $1,000 in cash from the bar, he said.

Breaking the no-gambling rule can result in a warning or fine against a tavern, and, occasionally, suspension or license revocation.

Duane Boden, owner of Clancy's, acknowledged that his staff would hold onto tournament bracket sheets and $20 entry fees for eventual collection by Weber. He said he saw nothing wrong with that practice, considering it is common in thousands of bars, offices and other sites locally and across the country.

Weber said the pool paid out three prizes last year, for $47,000, $27,000 and $21,000, based on the top three finishers' abilities to predict the most winners correctly before the tournament began. Correct guesses in late-round games counted for more points than contests in the opening rounds.

Weber said he and his assistants took several thousand dollars from entry fees to cover their expenses, primarily printing costs for the bracket sheets and weekly updates. He said the only other money they received was tips given by some of the winners on a voluntary basis, which could amount to several thousand dollars each year.

Bernie Pucka, executive director of the Allegheny County Tavern Association, said it's well-known that tournament pools exist in most establishments, similar to the ones that take place at Super Bowl time. They all know they run the risk of being cited, as the Legislature or governor have consistently rejected proposals to legalize various forms of gambling in bars.

"Gambling is illegal in Pennsylvania, that's all that has to be said," Pucka said. "Do I like that? No, but it's still the law."

Yurich said he couldn't comment on why the Dravosburg pool was targeted when so many others exist. Law enforcement officials have generally said they pursue such cases based on complaints from the public, rather than searching for them.

"We take action when we run into it," Yurich said.

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