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Base habit? Air Force runs 24 ‘casinos’

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Air Force personnel overseas need not travel to Las Vegas to gamble. Their U.S. bases abroad offer them slot machines — making Uncle Sam the owner of their private "casinos."

But Uncle Sam isn't exactly a smart casino operator, government documents say.

Auditors complain that the Air Force essentially has been allowing a sucker bet for robbery by failing to ensure adequate security and accounting procedures for money from the slots.

"As a result, slot-machine-generated cash is at higher risk for misappropriation or theft," says an Air Force Audit Agency study obtained by the Deseret News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

When Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah — a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee — heard of that report, he said he was surprised the military even allows gambling because of social ills it may cause. He wants answers about why it is done.

The January 2001 report obtained by the Deseret News said that in 1999 the Air Force operated 1,580 slot machines at 24 overseas bases.

Those with the most slots included Ramstein Air Base in Germany with 216, Osan in Korea with 207 and Kadena in Japan with 204. Some had just a few, such as Ghedi Torre Air Base in Italy with 12 and Moron Air Base in Spain with nine.

The report said that Air Force rules since 1995 have allowed slots abroad unless prohibited by host-country laws or agreements. It said they have been placed in clubs for officers and enlisted personnel, recreation lounges, rod and gun clubs, bowling centers and golf clubhouses.

The report said that in 1999 more than $78 million was wagered in slot machines at bases abroad. After payouts and expenses, a profit of $29 million was generated for use on quality-of-life projects.

The Air Force Audit Agency conducted an audit on controls over cash from the machines and said it found that collection, transport and security measures were inadequate at 21 of 22 sites on 10 bases that it visited.

For example, 17 of the 22 sites did not put money through bill counters to ensure accuracy in cash counts. At 15 of 22, they did not weigh coin bags and record the number and value of coins from the scale.

At four of 22 sites, collection teams did not have two individuals independently verify coin counts. And at seven of 22 sites, collection teams failed to secure rooms when removing cash as required. "During the cash collection at Lajes Field (in the Azores Islands), employees entered the collection area 11 times" during a visit by auditors, the report said.

Also, at eight of 22 sites, employees carried large amounts of cash — often in simple, transparent plastic bags — without armed escort.

Auditors also found that slot machines were often not bolted down as required. "For example, at the Osan Air Base (Korea) Mustang Club, two slot machines positioned in a corner were neither bolted together nor to the wall or floor," the study said.

While auditors could not identify any actual theft from such problems, it said sloppy procedures increase the chances of it — and "control weaknesses and resulting cash losses could bring discredit upon the slot-machine program and thus jeopardize the $29 million annual contribution to quality-of-life programs."

Auditors recommended, and commanders approved, better following of required security measures.

However, Hansen, for one, is concerned that the Air Force has slot machines at all — even if they were properly protected.

"This is the first time I've ever heard of" offering slots abroad, he said. "I've been on overseas bases, in the PXs and the clubs, and for the life of me I've never seen one."

Hansen added, "I'm not a believer in gambling. It's one of the worst vices around and has caused more heartache and grief than anything except maybe alcoholism. I don't know why we are involved in it. Hardly a week goes by when I don't have a four-star general drop by the office for something, and I'm going to ask what is going on."

Hansen comes from Utah — one of only two states that offer no legalized gambling. While the federal government generally has kept out of gambling, most states have long sponsored lotteries as government-operated gambling.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com