Atlantic City and Organized Crime

Atlantic City and Organized Crime

Photo by Jo Christian Oterhals

Brendan T. Byrne, Governor of New Jersey from 1974 to 1982, is the man responsible for the legislation legalizing casino gambling in Atlantic City. He weighed this week in an article in the North Jersey Record, half-apologizing for having done it.

The problem, as he presents it, is that New Jersey was too concerned at the time that organized crime would take over casino gambling, as had happened in Las Vegas. Remember, Byrne’s last year in office, ’82, was also the year alleged Vegas mob fixer Lefty Rosenthal survived a car-bomb assassination attempt, as later depicted with comically operatic fervor in the Scorsese flick Casino.

The answer, as Jersey saw it, was to employ many more people in the business of watchdogging casinos; as described in former FBI agent and Top Hoodlum Task Force member William F. Roemer’s War of the Godfathers, New Jersey employed something like twenty times as many regulatory employees per casino employee as Nevada did. The result was that organized crime never got its hooks into AC the way it did into Vegas. But was that enough to guarantee a prosperous industry for nigh on thirty-five years? What do you think, Einstein?

As with most industries in the U.S., other problems came to plague the gambling biz in AC. As Byrne presents it, horse racing, which had been an important part of AC’s industry, simply couldn’t compete. The number of people who love horse racing are dwarfed by the number of people who just want to lose money, and people who want to lose money do it faster and more addictively at casinos. (Okay, that’s not what he said; I’m taking minor liberties here).

But that’s just the start. The casinos themselves are barely afloat, hit hard by competition from local casinos, which more or less didn’t exist in the 1970s and 1980s. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced in July that a state takeover of Atlantic City’s municipal government and tourism regulation, planning and marketing systems was imminent; regulatory reform was required, he said, to counteract a four-year slump in the gambling industry that’s devastated Atlantic City.

Oh, and remember that organized crime thing? Two AC mayors have gone to prison since casino gambling began. The first, Michael Matthews, pled guilty to extortion in the mid-1980s; Matthews was an alleged associate of Little Nicky Scarfo, the Philly mob boss who presided over the most intense period of concentrated violence in American Mafia history. The second AC convict mayor, Robert W. Levy, admitted to defrauding the Veterans Benefits Administration. See? It gets even worse than Tony Spilotro!

Byrne, for his part, is hopeful that a restructuring of Atlantic City can make it more tourist-friendly, which will make it more investment friendly. But in his closing paragraph, he cites as proof of NJ’s “can do” attitude not a damn thing to do with community development or regional economic restructuring…but the way “we,” the voters of New Jersey, made the state lottery profitable by letting bettors pick their own numbers.

Do these Jersey boys have gambling on the brain…or what?

Possibly related posts: