Rep. Frank: Administration 'wasting time' with online poker crackdown

The Obama administration is wasting time and resources by targeting online poker sites, according to Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. 

"What an incredible waste of resources," Frank said in an interview with The Hill regarding last Friday's crackdown, which saw the FBI and Justice Department shut down the three largest online poker sites in what appears to be the largest sting to date on illegal online gambling. 

Frank mocked the seizures as the administration "protecting the public from the scourge of inside straights," and lamented that the Justice Department is more focused on prosecuting online poker sites than those responsible for the mortgage crisis and financial meltdown.

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"Go after the people responsible for empty houses, not full houses," Frank added. "I'm not saying violate the law, but to give this priority in law enforcement over some other things I think is a terrible idea and I think the administration is wrong on this."

As Financial Services chairman in the last Congress, Frank moved legislation to legalize online gambling through his committee. He has re-introduced the same legislation this year in partnership with Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.). 

Campbell was attending a memorial service for his mother Monday and was unavailable for comment.

Frank said he has been trying to repeal the law banning online gambling since it passed in 2006, calling it "exasperating." He traced the ban to former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who he said inserted it into a spending bill to win votes from the religious right.

"I know the GOP is under a lot of pressure to back off on this," Frank said.

He expressed hope the backlash from recent events would help build momentum for his legislation, arguing many conservatives who oppose gambling personally still view the ban as problematic because it regulates banks and allows the government to intervene in a free market.

Frank also noted that a scoring of his legislation found it would likely bring in several billion dollars in additional tax revenue, money that would be welcome given the current fiscal climate in Washington.

The three sites involved in the sting; Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Absolute Poker, saw around $16 billion in wagers from U.S. players last year.

The crackdown has also disrupted the lives of the thousands of individuals that rely on online poker for part or all of their income. That group includes not only professional gamblers but also programmers who create analytics and other tools as well as the backers who finance many of the full-time players.

One Detroit resident, who asked not to be named, described himself as typical of the online poker crowd in that he works part-time and goes to graduate school but relies on winnings from online poker to supplement his income.

The feds' swift action to shut down the sites caught him and many other online poker players by surprise since the law is rarely enforced and the live version of the game has been increasingly legalized by states and communities under various rules allowing gambling for charitable and other purposes.