US Congressman Turns To DOJ For Guidance On Sports Betting, Wire Act

On Thursday, the chairman of a House committee, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, sent a letter to the US Department of Justice to request guidance about federal oversight of sports betting.

If you recall, way back in September, the US Congress held its first hearing regarding legal sports betting after PASPA’s demise.

Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, sent the letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. More or less, the letter’s purpose is to determine what effects existing laws have on the practice of sports betting.

You can read the letter in full here.

The letter was sent on the same day that Pennsylvania started accepting wagers at one of its casinos. So as of today, there are six states who started taking legal wagers in the last six months. NJ sports betting, for its part, is in its fourth month and hit $260 million in handle in October.

What Sensenbrenner’s letter on sports betting asks

In the letter, Sensenbrenner asks Rosenstein for his opinions about the practice of sports betting in the US without the PASPA framework.

As befitting the chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, Sensenbrenner repeatedly mentions the dangers of criminal influence and exploitation in sports betting.

At heart, Sensenbrenner believes that Congress’ list of options regarding sports betting are as follows:

  1. Issue a new ban on sports betting.
  2. Create uniform federal standards on sports betting.
  3. Let each state decide its own standards.

Of course, Sensenbrenner undercuts one of those options in his very next sentence. He says:

“The worst option for Congress is to do nothing.”

Coincidentally, he used this same sentiment to conclude the hearing in September.

Ultimately, the questions for which Sensenbrenner wants answers are as follows:

  • Do you support the 2011 Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion that reinterpreted the Wire Act to permit online gambling?
  • What guidance, if any, is the Department of Justice currently providing to states that are entering the sports betting realm?
  • What issues do you foresee in sports betting (both legal and illegal) if Congress does not act in response to the Supreme Court’s PASPA decision?
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Sensenbrenner asking the wrong questions

One of the most troubling aspects of Sensenbrenner’s investigation into sports betting is the congressman’s interpretation of the current status of things.

Many of his statements, both during the hearing and in this letter, suggest that he believes the demise of PASPA created a legal vacuum.

For instance, his invocation of the Wire Act of 1961 poses an interesting legal question. All federal laws must pertain to interstate activities, and sports betting, in its current form, has been strictly intrastate.

The Wire Act is also troubling because of its antiquated 1961 language. Sensenbrenner appears to be concerned about an interpretative question of law.

Thirdly, if Sensenbrenner’s chief concern is the prevention of criminal influence, he should be asking the DOJ about the existing enforcement measures being taken against illegal forms of gambling.

The seven states (which includes Nevada) that legalized sports betting already have regulations in place that could provide those answers.

Finally, he should be asking about how much uniformity there exists in the states’ regulatory schemes. For instance, most states prohibit wagering on high school athletics of any kind. So, a federal prohibition of same would be redundant.

Here are some questions that Sensenbrenner should be asking

With all that said, here is a list of potential questions that Sensenbrenner should be asking:

  1. Does the Wire Act have any kind of jurisdiction over sports betting in its current form?
  2. Should the Wire Act be amended to reflect modern advances and technology? Alternatively, should Congress draft a law as a wireless corollary to it?
  3. What is the status of each sports betting state’s safeguards regarding criminal activity and exploitation?
  4. What legal areas are remaining uncovered by the state laws and regulations on sports betting as they are currently written?

The main thing that Sensenbrenner should do is keep talking with experts on both sides of the issue. If he is bound and determined to do something about sports betting, it should, at least, be an informed decision.

About the Author

Bart Shirley

Bart Shirley is a writer who covers the NJ online gambling industry as well as a poker player from Houston, Texas. He has a master's degree in business administration from Texas Christian University and a degree in English from Texas A&M. In his spare time, Bart teaches math and business at Memorial High School in Houston.