LINCOLN — A longtime counselor of problem gamblers said he wasn't surprised when a state senator admitted to a gambling addiction last week.
Compulsive betting snags the well-off, and well-known, at possibly a higher rate than others, according to Jerry Bauerkemper, executive director of the Nebraska Council on Compulsive Gambling.
And such gambling problems don't often come to light until the gambler is caught using other people's money, Bauerkemper said.
He said State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha had hit what's called the “desperation” stage when she was caught.
“Most people start out winning a little, losing a little, seeing it as a game,” Bauerkemper said. “Then something happens and they run out of their own resources.”
Bauerkemper, who is based in the Elkhorn area, said that Council's case is not unlike many of the cases he encounters.
His privately funded organization runs a toll-free help line for problem gamblers in Nebraska that handles 2,500 calls a year. It also offers treatment services in central Iowa through a contract there.
Bauerkemper said that some older research suggested that highly intelligent and financially secure people are more susceptible to such gambling problems because they think “they can handle it” and have “a system.”
“They're gambling out of a desire to gamble, and not to make money,” he said. “They do it for the action, or to escape their problems.”
Council, a 58-year-old lawyer and former member of the Omaha City Council and Omaha school board, isn't the first person to fall prey to excesses at the blackjack table or with a sports bookie.
During the past decade, Omaha has seen a nun, a priest and at least three insurance company employees go to prison after embezzling between $106,000 and $395,000 each to feed their gambling habits.
Two years ago, a former Omaha businessman, Terry Watanabe, was charged with skipping out on a whopper, $14.7 million debt he'd built up at a Las Vegas casino.
Harrah's eventually agreed to mediation, thus avoiding a public airing of accusations that the casino had taken advantage of Watanabe's gambling addiction to rack up the debts.
Council admitted last week that she had a gambling problem and said she would seek counseling.
She is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to two misdemeanor charges for failure to disclose that she had borrowed $63,000 from her campaign funds over 2½ years to feed a gambling habit.
Council has repaid $36,000 of those funds and has pledged to repay the rest.
The senator, who is moving ahead with a re-election campaign in her north Omaha district, said last week that she would have no further comment on the matter. Messages left with her Friday were not returned.
But Bauerkemper said her case highlights a problem in Nebraska: Not enough people know the warning signs of problem gambling.
The state spent $1.2 million in state lottery funds last year and treated 173 people through its “Gamblers Assistance Program.” But only about 23 percent of the money — about $286,000 — was spent on prevention and education efforts.
Bauerkemper said that's too little. By contrast, he said, neighboring Iowa used to spend $1 million a year just to publicize its “1-800-BETS OFF” hotline. As a result, lots of Nebraskans with gambling problems call that number, Bauerkemper said, unaware that Nebraska has its own help line, 1-800-522-4700.
“We don't have a public awareness campaign, or a signs-and-symptoms campaign. We don't have anything like that,” he said.
People are reluctant to intervene with problem gamblers because it's often a personal, financial issue, Bauerkemper said. “No one will confront you about what you're doing with your own money,” he said.
But if friends and family were more aware of the warning signs — as they are with drugs and alcohol — compulsive betters might get help earlier, he said, before their problems escalate.
Iowa's outreach efforts have dwindled in recent years, too, as part of a general downsizing of public health budgets to deal with state budget problems.
Spending on education was about $200,000 down from that $1 million high a few years ago, according to Mark Vander Linden, manager of Iowa's problem gambling office.
“I think it's the general trend,” he said, of less money for health promotion campaigns.
Vander Linden said that promoting warning signs is important so that people know when to seek treatment and intervene. He said a higher percentage of gamblers are involved in “risky” but not yet desperate activities, such as betting more than they can afford, hiding their gambling and giving up family activities to gamble.
Bauerkemper, the Nebraska counselor, said that between 2 percent and 5 percent of the population, at some point in their lifetime, will have a gambling problem. That figure has remained stable over the past 20 years.
The rate of gambling addiction is about half the rate for drug and alcohol addiction, and, he said, “most people know the warning signs of alcoholism.”
It appears that Council tried to address her gambling problems back in 2005, when she signed a form voluntarily banning herself from all casinos in Iowa. But it didn't appear to work. Later that year, she was arrested for trespassing at Bluffs Run Casino in Council Bluffs.
She denied, at the time, that she had a gambling problem.
Bauerkemper said that such “self exclude” agreements are often problem gamblers' first attempt at stopping themselves. But without counseling, such gamblers often get obsessive and sneak back into the casinos, which he said are reluctant to seek trespassing charges until there are multiple violations.
He said that sports betting is probably the most popular form of gambling in Nebraska but that about 55 percent of the calls to the state hotline are for problems with casino gambling, and that number is highest in eastern Nebraska, near the casinos in Council Bluffs.
Much of the state senator's gambling occurred at an Indian casino in Kansas, more than 100 miles from Omaha, but where Council was not banned.
“My hope is that she receives the help she needs, that she can straighten up her life as far as the gambling is concerned,” Bauerkemper said.
Having gambling problems like this come to light, he added, might serve to publicize the issue and encourage someone else to seek help.
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Help lines and warning signs
Iowa: 1-800-BETS OFF
Warning signs of a gambling problem:
» Preoccupied with gambling, including reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next venture or thinking of ways to get more money to gamble.
» Secretive about gambling habits and defensive when confronted.
» Increasing bet amounts when gambling to achieve the desired excitement, or “high.”
» Trying unsuccessfully to control, cut back or stop gambling.
» Restless or irritable when not gambling.
» Gambling to escape problems.
» Chasing losses with more gambling.
» Lying to family and others about the extent of gambling.
» Committing crimes to finance gambling.
» Jeopardizing or losing relationships, jobs, education or career opportunities because of gambling.
» Relying on others for a bailout to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.
Source: Iowa Department of Public Health, Office of Gambling Treatment and Prevention