How are poker clubs operating in Houston months after raids?

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - After a Channel 2 Investigates inquiry, the Houston Police Department has again issued a dire warning directed toward poker clubs operating within Houston's city limits, yet more than a dozen poker clubs continue to operate nearly two months after two clubs were raided and shut down.

"The recent law enforcement actions against the Post Oak Poker Club and the Prime Social Poker Club should serve as a clear notice that the Houston Police Department will not tolerate organized criminal activity in the city of Houston. Any establishment engaging in similar conduct does so at their own peril," the department said.

Neither HPD nor the Harris County District Attorney's Office would agree to sit down for an interview about what some see as selective enforcement and prosecution of poker establishments.

Nine owner/operators were arrested at two clubs in early May, each charged with money laundering.

Both Post Oak Poker Club and Prime Social Poker Club were labeled "public nuisances" by Harris County because of excessive calls for service at the locations.

"There are two dozen clubs open tonight doing the exact same thing. It seems pretty clear to me something weird is going on here," Wayne Dolcefino, a representative for Prime Social Poker Club, said.

The former investigative reporter now makes a living defending people, companies and causes that have run into varying degrees of trouble.

"If this is such a moral outrage, why six or seven weeks later are all of these other clubs still open?" Dolcefino said.

Channel 2 Investigates obtained the arrest warrant for Prime Social Poker Club co-owner Dean Maddox.

Maddox, 84, was among the nine arrested for alleged money laundering. The detailed warrant spells out the undercover operations employed by the Houston Police Department to build the case against Maddox and his colleagues.

Oddly, there appears to be no "smoking gun" laid out in the arrest warrant. The Prime Social Poker Club appeared to be running its poker operation largely as publicly advertised. Somewhat surprisingly, the business had revenue of more than $6 million in less than two years.

The cases against the owner/operators appear to hinge on the interpretation of Texas gambling law, which clearly outlines that bets for money using cards is illegal. However, there are caveats.

If gambling is going on in a "private place," the activity can be legal. If no person received any economic benefit other than personal winnings from gambling, it can be legal.

Poker club owners have argued that since the businesses are structured as clubs that require membership, the gambling is going on in a private place, and since there is no rake from poker winnings, only fees for "sitting" or "activities" or "entrance," they are not profiting from the gambling itself.

Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, believes that current law contains a significant "gray area."

"I think this is something that the Legislature should look at if the courts don't rule within the next year and a half (to coincide with the next legislative session)," Bettencourt said.

The pending cases against the owner/operators of the two clubs now no longer operating may serve as those test cases. In the meantime, there is no clarity if the Houston Police Department and Harris County District Attorney's Office plan similar crackdowns on other local poker clubs.

"People have a right to say, 'What is really the deal here?'" Dolcefino said.

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